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[EXCERPT: The disaster highlights the precarious state of China's scarce water supplies. The country is trying to meet competing demands from its 1.3 billion people and booming industry, while the government says major rivers are dangerously polluted. ... 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. Protesters often accuse officials of failing to enforce environmental rules either in exchange for bribes or for fear of hurting local business.]

Toxic Slick Flows Into Major China City

By JOE McDONALD
Associated Press Writer
Thu Nov 24, 2005

A slick of river-borne toxins from a chemical plant explosion flowed into a major Chinese city Thursday as the government dug wells after shutting down its water system to protect millions of residents from the pollution.

The 50-mile-long stretch of water carrying toxic benzene flowing through Harbin, a northeastern city of 3.8 million people, at about 3 a.m., 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 did not give any details.

Harbin shut down its water system at midnight on Tuesday after a chemical plant explosion Nov. 3 in the nearby city of Jilin spewed toxic benzene into the Songhua River. Jilin is about 120 miles southeast of Harbin.

The announcement of the impending shutdown set off panicked buying of water, soft drinks and milk. Families stocked up by filling bathtubs and buckets.

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 left pushing carts straining under hundreds of bottles.

One shop owner, who would give only her surname, Jiang, said her sales had doubled to 25,000 bottles a day at 12 U.S. cents each. Authorities froze prices to prevent overcharging.

"We're charging exactly what we did before," Jiang said. She said distributors were bringing in extra supplies.

"Whatever we need, we can get," she said.

Harbin is one of the coldest places in China, with overnight temperatures this week of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. During its famed "ice lantern" festival, giant slabs of ice cut from the Songhua are used to construct copies of famous buildings and artworks in public parks.

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 for the shutdown, but officials in Beijing had refused to comment.

The tip-off was a trail of dead fish in the Songhua River, the official China Daily newspaper reported Thursday. It said a monitoring station found on Nov. 20 that benzene and nitrobenzene levels were far above state standards with nitrobenzene at one point 103.6 times higher than normal.

"Massive amounts can lead to the disorder of blood cells in other words, leukemia," Zhang Lanying, director of the Environment and Resources Institute at Jilin University, was quoted as saying.

The explosion, which forced the evacuation of 10,000 people, was blamed on human error in a tower that processed benzene, a toxic, flammable liquid.

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

Liu Jianchao, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, said Thursday that the Russian Embassy in Beijing had been briefed twice by Chinese officials and both sides have agreed to share information and cooperate closely in monitoring the situation.

"The Chinese side attaches great importance to the potential impact and harm cause by the pollution on our neighbor Russia" he said at a regular briefing.

The disaster highlights the precarious state of China's scarce water supplies. The country is trying to meet competing demands from its 1.3 billion people and booming industry, while the government says major rivers are dangerously polluted.

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. Protesters often accuse officials of failing to enforce environmental rules either in exchange for bribes or for fear of hurting local business.

"This is the tip of the iceberg," said Elizabeth C. Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and author of the 2004 book "The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future."

"We've seen over the past six months or so a number of factory-related protests ... because factories don't live up to or don't enforce China's own environmental regulations and laws," she said. "So if, in fact, this is a case of that happening, then this is part of a much broader, systemic problem."

The shutdown affects Harbin but not its suburbs, said an official of the city water department who would give only his surname, Chen.




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