Thursday, November 24, 2005

Harbin Update

AP has an update:
The 50-mile-long patch of water carrying toxic benzene began entering Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people in China's northeast, before dawn, the government said. It was expected to take 40 hours to pass.

"After it passes ... we will have to make efforts to disinfect the water," Shi Zhongxin, director of the city's water bureau, said on state television. He gave no details...

...The city government announced it was digging 100 new wells.

On Thursday, thousands of one-liter bottles of drinking water stood in huge stacks outside wholesale shops. Families bought them by the dozen to take home by bicycle, while sidewalk vendors pushed carts straining under hundreds of bottles...

...China's central government confirmed for the first time Wednesday that the shutdown was a result of a "major water pollution incident." Local officials earlier disclosed the reason, but officials in Beijing had refused to comment...

...The explosion, which forced the evacuation of 10,000 people, was blamed on human error in a facility processing benzene, which is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents and pesticides. Short-term exposure can cause drowsiness, dizziness and unconsciousness.

A top official with China's environmental watchdog said Thursday the company overseeing the plant should be held responsible — state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., which is the country's largest oil company.

"We will be very clear about who's responsible. It is the chemical plant of the CNPC in Jilin province," Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said at a news conference.

Zhang did not give any more details but said investigators were looking into criminal responsibility.

He also had no details on what authorities would do to protect against long-term damage to the river and surrounding soil.

In neighboring Russia, news reports said concern was growing in the border city of Khabarovsk, about 435 miles downriver from Harbin.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said officials briefed the Russian Embassy twice this week and both sides have agreed to share information....

...Zhang said China did no wrong in waiting until this week to tell Russia about the effects of the Nov. 13 accident. "There are different levels of reporting," he said, explaining that local officials along the river were told first.

"It will be another 14 days before the toxins reach the Heilongjiang River" which flows into Russia, "so we don't think we were late in providing information," he said.

But, an official in Khabarovsk told Russia's Itar-Tass news agency that not enough was known about the accident on the Songhua River — known in Russian as the Sungari.

"Unfortunately, the Chinese side has so far not released full information about the chemicals in the Sungari and their amount," Ivan Sych, head of the Khabarovsk regional department for civil defense and emergency situations, was quoted as saying...

...With its huge population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer shortages of water for drinking or industry. Protests have erupted in rural areas throughout China over complaints that pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops.
The Financial Times account is grim:
Thousands of residents of Harbin last night jammed its railway station while others booked all available flights as a deadly 80km toxic slick made its way down the Songhua river, threatening to poison the north-eastern Chinese city's water supplies.

The slick of benzene and other toxins was leaked into the river, the city's main source of water, after a series of explosions 10 days ago at a chemicals factory 200km upriver.

A mood of distrust and paranoia was spreading through the industrial city of 9m people, sharpened by the local government's decision to turn off water supplies for four days for fear of an environmental catastrophe.

Trains leaving the city are fully booked until the weekend. All 42 flights from the city's airport were also full yesterday.
The Guardian adds:
While the true extent of the risk to human health remains unclear, the public's sense of unease has been heightened by mixed signals coming from the authorities, who have taken more than a week to raise the alarm...

...The state environmental protection agency said it had started monitoring water safety levels within three hours of the explosion at the plant, yet its report - that 108 times the safe level of benzene seeped into the river - only became public knowledge yesterday... China, questions about the environmental disaster are spreading beyond Harbin. According to the Xinhua news agency, the provincial government is so concerned that it has warned city residents to stay away from the river to avoid possible exposure to airborne toxins.

Upstream, there have been reports that many fish have died and, contrary to earlier denials, it appears that at least two cities, Songhua and Jilin, have shut down water supplies because of health fears.
I'm running out the door and have no real time to comment here. But for me, this has echoes of another disaster from a few decades ago. That too took place in a state that zealously tried to control the flow of information, and the fall-out from the government's handling of it helped trigger major changes in that government.

Remember Chernobyl?

I've said before that perhaps a grassroots environmental movement has the potential to be a dem0cr@tizing force in China. Pollution affects everyone, rich and poor, and in addition there are many in the government who recognize the severity of China's problem and are pushing for concrete actions to address it (check out this interview with Minister Pan Yue). A balance with nature is an essential aspect of traditional Chinese culture as well - something that even Mao and the rush to modernization has not completely destroyed.

China's officials claim they will share information on a timely basis. I imagine Harbin's residents will be very interested to see if they do - particuarly their plans to ensure the future safety of the water supply.

UPDATE And the criticism is rolling in:
Environmentalists criticized the government for failing to take action and inform the public sooner.

"Careful environmental evaluation should have been made to avoid building dangerous factories near residential areas and water sources in the first place," said Xue Ye, general secretary of the Chinese group Friends of Nature.

"The local government should have predicted the possible pollution, but they didn't. It makes us wonder whether the plan was made for real use or just for showing off."...

...Reporters from China's usually docile state press peppered Zhang with questions, asking repeatedly why the government waited so long to disclose the scale of the threat faced by Harbin and other communities.

Zhang replied, "We did report it right away. There are different levels of reporting."

A reporter from China Central Television, noting that China has suffered a string of fatal industrial accidents recently, asked whether the government would be setting up a new emergency-response mechanism.

Zhang said the government already had such a mechanism and that it functioned as planned.

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