News from Harbin

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…

…in 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.

The Discussion: 20 Comments

Toxic Slick Reaches Chinese City

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.

November 24, 2005 @ 2:40 pm | Comment

“There are different levels of reporting….”
That would explain so much that’s curently going on stateside…

November 24, 2005 @ 3:47 pm | Comment

i’m very disappointed to the goverment’s response. still they denied their responsibility on this case. no one was arrested for this nature disater, no compensation was made to the local people suffering from the water shortage and other inconvenience. we know that Harbin is a heavy-industrial city and has a high unemployment rate. we frequently hear the strike news about 3 provinces locating in east-noth china. these common workers have a very limited income(particularly many of them have no stable income), so how can they support buying bottle-water? why did our goverment not to provide free-water to them? why did the CNPC not to pay them money for water? CNPC is very rich especially in these two years because of the rising oil price in the market.

November 24, 2005 @ 5:59 pm | Comment

the response of Harbin and Heilongjiang government deserve praise.

the leaders in Jilin should be fired, like those fired in SARS.

November 24, 2005 @ 6:24 pm | Comment

I hate to say it, but it’s a good thing for the environment that China lost outer Manchuria to Russia in 1858 and 1860. Considering Russia’s horrible environmental track record with Lake Baikal, it is a sad day indeed when Russia has to worry about environmental pollution from China.

November 24, 2005 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

This whole thing is complicated by the fact that the accident happened in Jilin city in Jilin province, but most of the affected population live downstream in Heilongjiang province. It looks like officials in Jilin kept a lid on things for nearly a week, even telling the press there is no danger from any chemical leakage at one point. Only after the chemicals has gotten to Heilongjiang province that this was widely made public.

November 24, 2005 @ 6:37 pm | Comment

BTW, I was born and raised in Harbin with most of my relatives still living there and my wife is from Jilin city. The issue of pollution of the Songhua river has been a source of friction between the 2 cities (and their respective provinces) for many decades. People in Harbin have long been upset about the release of waste into the Songhua river by Jilin chemical plants even in normal operation but their complaints have been mostly ignored by Jilin.

It is not surprising that officials in Harbin and Heilongjiang has been fairly open about this incident. The accident didn’t happen in their jurisdiction, so they can’t be blamed by the central government. They have no interest in helping Jilin cover up the chemical leak even if the two sides were on good terms. In fact, given the long history of past friction over the river, it’s actually in Harbin’s and Heilongjiang’s interests to amplify this incident as much as possible and hold it over Jilin official’s heads to gain leverage in the future management of the Songhua river. Officials and media in Harbin and Heilongjiang haven’t been exactly subtle in pointing the finger at Jilin and giving suggestions of coverup.

November 24, 2005 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

It is sad to see so many millions suffers from incidents like this. But i fear it will take many more major incidents like this to wake up the rulers in Beijing to take action!
There might be good environmental laws in China but its not enforced by the Central government and the provincial/local government are often to busy chasing high GDP to care about damaged environment. Afterall government officials are promoted based on their GDP achievement!

November 24, 2005 @ 9:22 pm | Comment

i know this is a bad situation, but i also think this is a test bed case for the central govt to work with outside media, so that the govt can spin news in its favour. they need this test, cause bird flu is getting out of control (is way out of control), and soon china will be crawling with foreign journalists. by the way, the BBC coverage was blocked in beijing yesterday, but today, its back on. i guess they made a deal, and worked out what they would say…ie, tow the parties official line.

what do you guys think of this article i found today?

November 25, 2005 @ 2:16 am | Comment

Chris, I believe this New Scientist article is based on a rumor. See bingfeng’s post about it today.

November 25, 2005 @ 2:28 am | Comment

it is time for china to think about moving these factories away.
like they have moved the steel work away from beijing.

i travelled past Jilin City a couple time. it was a beautiful city with ugly sky.

November 25, 2005 @ 2:29 am | Comment

@Sun Bin
Do you think it is a solution to just move them away? That won’t sove the problem of pollution. Reminds me of the policy of the high chimneys we had here in Europe in the 60es and 70es: Bild the chimneys as high as you can so that all the dirt pollutes the neighbouring country and not yours.
What about better security standarts, more filters and sewage plants?

November 25, 2005 @ 6:38 am | Comment

Warning: New Scientist may not be a reliable source of information.

I investigated a story they once published, a story which got worldwide attention. I emailed the scientist who conducted the original research.

Turns out New Scientist completely misrepresented his findings to create a splashy story.

November 25, 2005 @ 9:08 am | Comment

What Hui Mao said about the conduct of the Jilin officials perfectly illustrates the conundrum of governing China today – good regulations and reporting structures exist on paper at the central government level, but local officials ignore them with impunity – until something goes wrong.

Without an independent media able to report on such officials’ conduct and without any political competition, I don’t see how the situation can change.

Good to see China’s press taking an active role in reporting this.

November 25, 2005 @ 12:11 pm | Comment

Friday I Ching Blogging: China’s Chernobyl?

The horrific chemical spill in the Songhua River in China is an environmental disaster of gigantic scale. Harbin, a city of 3.8 million people, has had to cut all of its public water supplies. An untold number of people

November 25, 2005 @ 8:18 pm | Comment

no, moving it away alone may not solve the problem.

but when it is moved, they probably build new chimney and hopefully there is better filter, and have to adhere to newer environmental standard.

more important is that songhua river will be cleaner, and they need to treat the waste (now that there is no convenient river to dump into).

this is the best way to use the 700BN reserve. and i think the west needs to help them with the technology. because pollution will affect everyone in the earth in long term.

November 26, 2005 @ 8:51 pm | Comment

Sun Bin You think the West woudl be will ing to help the Chinese to fic the Enviro problem? No mate! it would only help if the chinese have the money and prepare to pay a premium for the technology. The polutions in China only kills Chinese so its not a problem at the moment. But when a few Nuclear power plant blew up and the radioactive materials is blown around the northern hemisphere then it might triger some kind of help from the West.

November 30, 2005 @ 10:23 pm | Comment

Not true, Ming. The US has spent billions helping other countries with environmental disasters, with no benefit to the US and no products sold. (What did we get for saving all those Indonesians after the Dec. 26 tsunami?()

November 30, 2005 @ 11:32 pm | Comment

What did the USA gain from helping the victims of tsunami in Indonesia?
1. Good PR
2. Market for military hardwares
3. Another ally in SE Asia to help contain the rising China.
4. Contract to rebuilt Aceh for the USA frims.

December 1, 2005 @ 10:33 pm | Comment

Ming, you really are bothering me with your casual untruths. Maybe you believe them, but they aren’t based on any reaity. i am very critical of the US, but i’m careful to back up my complaints with evidence and research. You’re just saying whatever comes into your head, with no actual knowledge or facts. Do you really think a US firm is getting rich “rebuilding” Aceh – an impoverished war-torn place? Who’s paying this US firm? What’s the firm’s name? What’s your source?

December 2, 2005 @ 12:50 am | Comment

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