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    China Business
     Dec 2, 2005
China's toxic spillover
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING - As China grappled with the political and social fallout of trying to cover up a toxic spill in the country's impoverished northeast, rural communities emerged as the most forsaken in government responses to environmental hazards caused by rapid industrialization.

An explosion at a state-owned chemical factory in Jilin city in mid-November caused large quantities of poisonous benzene to flow into the Songhua River that runs through Harbin city, forcing



authorities to shut off running water to the 3.8 million residents for five days.

Though Harbin authorities reacted slowly and misleadingly, the central government mobilized resources rapidly, delivering tons of bottled water to head off panic and sending teams of officials to reassure fleeing inhabitants.

And as contamination in the Songhua threatened to spread to the Amur River across the border with Russia, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing issued a public apology to Russia, expressing "regret over the possible harm to be done to the Russian people by the major environmental pollution accident".

But little was said or done to alert the rural communities in numerous towns and villages along the Songhua between Jilin and Harbin about the dangerous chemicals flowing in the water. The authorities have offered no estimates on how many people rely on the river for drinking water.

After the news of the spill filtered to the villages surrounding Harbin, peasants started digging underground wells for water, the local media reported. But the environmental organization Greenpeace has warned that any industrial chemicals that have seeped into the soil would have a long-term environmental impact.
The November 13 explosion released into the river about 100 tons of benzene, which is highly toxic and carcinogenic, along with some nitrobenzene, a benzene derivative. High-level exposure to benzene is known to cause leukemia, and there are concerns that the same effects could result from long-term low-level exposure through water or food.

"We urge the Chinese government to make even greater efforts in protecting the local people and the environment," said Kevin May, toxics campaign manager of Greenpeace China. "It should, for example, conduct a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the pollution and, on that basis, draw up a plan and implement effective cleanup."

Pollution concerns have been behind a string of protests across the country in recent months and the nexus between local governments and factories which flout environmental norms has aroused sharp criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and government officials.

In the latest incident, officials in Jilin suppressed news of the spill, some few hundred kilometers upriver from Harbin, for more than 10 days. Public disquiet was also fueled by a lack of information in the past about health alarms, such as the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and natural disasters where death tolls and the scope of environmental hazards, until recently, were considered state secrets.

The Jilin toxic spill incident highlighted concerns about environmental disasters triggered by China's rapid urbanization. Even the usually docile state-run media has accused the government of mishandling a potential environmental catastrophe. The Beijing Youth Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party's youth league, accused the authorities of an unjustifiable lie that had "reduced public trust in the government".

The English-language China Daily drew attention to the costs of China's rapid economic development, which has blatantly disregarded environmental preservation. "The 'GDP mania', or preoccupation with gross-domestic product of growth, has contributed to the ignorance of work safety, pollution and educational needs, in some cases," said an editorial in the paper November 29.

But the sharpest criticism came from the People's Daily, the flagship of the party. Life has returned to normal after several days of water supply problems for Harbin residents, the paper pointed out last week, "but it will be years before 300 million farmers in the countryside get access to clean drinking water free of fluorine, arsenic and other poisonous industrial elements".

"We should provide rural residents with enough safe drinking water. If this problem remains unresolved, it would be shameful for us to talk about a harmonious society," the paper said, referring to the communist party leadership's stated goal of putting poor people first and narrowing the yawning wealth gap between the urban and rural areas.

The paper had a series of sobering figures regarding the scarcity and quality of water supplies in rural China. Today, some 96 million rural people lack daily access to drinking water, more than 30 million farmers drink bitter and salty water every day, and some 54 million have to contend with water containing high levels of fluorine or arsenic.

Rapid industrialization and urbanization have increased demand for clean water, even as China's fast development has polluted the water table and turned many rivers into moving cesspools.

Government officials reckon 70% of China's lakes and rivers are polluted. Speaking at a water seminar this month, Chen Bangzhu, a senior environmental expert, estimated that 75% of the country's lakes were suffering from eutrophication, or water pollution caused by excessive plant nutrients in the form of fertilizers, sewage and industrial waste. On an average, 20 natural lakes "disappear" in China every year and about 1,000 inland lakes had vanished in the past 50 years, Chen revealed.

China's environmental situation is "grim", even according to premier Wen Jiabao, who has warned that strain on the country's environment will only increase in the coming years as industrialization and development continues. "We must see clearly that at present we are discharging more waste than our environment can bear," he told a meeting of the State Council, this month.

"As our economy develops and our consumption of resources and energy increases, our efforts to protect the environment will face greater and greater pressure," the Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

China to help Russia
According to China's Xinhua News Service, China will send equipment to test water for benzene to Russian authorities by December 2 as the contaminated slick in the Songhua River approaches the international border, Chinese officials said. The heavily polluted stretch of water is approaching the Heilong River (called the Amur in Russia), a border river of the two countries, at a speed of 2 kilometers per hour. It is expected to reach the Russian city of Khabarovsk in about 12 days.

A seven-person Russian delegation from the Khabarovsk Environmental Protection Bureau met Tuesday with directors of the Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Bureau, the Harbin Water Supply Company and the Harbin Heat Supply Company in the capital of northeast China's Heilongjiang province.

Li Ping, a spokesman with the provincial environmental protection bureau who announced the agreement, also said the bureau would send experienced personnel to help install the equipment and train Russian personnel. Victor Bardyuk, head of the delegation, said he was satisfied with the arrangement. The delegation has been updated twice a day with the situation of the slick.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China started to provide details of the river pollution to the Russian Embassy on November 22 and regular reports on water quality since November 24. He added that China cared about the interest and concern of the Russian people. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, at a meeting with Russian ambassador Sergei Razov on November 26, expressed regret over the possible harm that could be done.

Khabarovsk, with a population of 600,000, will be the first Russian city affected; three other cities farther downstream will also be affected. Bardyuk said no poisonous substances are now found in the Heilong River, but the water supply for Khabarovsk could be cut three hours before the slick arrived. "It depends on the density and the amount of the pollutants," he said.

A shutdown of Khabarovsk's water service could last three days. But if the density of pollutants is greatly reduced, there may be no need to cut the water supply, but only to adopt a more advanced filtration technique, he added. The city has accumulated 20 tons of activated carbon to upgrade its water filtration system and is asking for more, he noted. Zhai Pingyang, deputy director of the Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Bureau, told China Daily it was still unclear how the slick would affect the Heilong River as it is still a long way from it.

Leadership reshuffle at PetroChina
Xinhua also reported on December 1 that PetroChina had denied any relationship between the company's latest leadership reshuffle and the recent explosion at its subsidiary in Jilin province. "It is a purely normal leadership adjustment," claimed the company's spokesman.

PetroChina's major rival Sinopec, whose top management team was overhauled several days ago, made similar claims. The coincidence may be because the country's Ministry of Personnel, which supervises leadership appointments for large state-owned companies, may have recently approved the two companies' new management.

Industry watchers point out that the three newly promoted vice presidents of PetroChina all come from the company's exploration and development division, while Sinopec's three new leaders, all in their 40s, all have a background in the downstream sector.

PetroChina's board of directors on November 28 appointed Su Shulin and Duan Wende as the company's senior vice presidents, Wang Guoliang as the Chief Financial Officer, and Liao Yongyuan, Jia Chengzhao and Hu Wenrui as vice presidents. Meanwhile, the board also appointed Wang Fucheng as the chairman of the board of supervisors.

An insider with PetroChina denied that the reshuffle had any relationship with the explosion at Jilin Petrochemical. He also said that Chen Gen, the president of PetroChina, is still chairman of PetroChina and general manager of CNPC, PetroChina's parent company.

One day before, Sinopec also announced new appointments. Cai Xiyou was appointed as Sinopec's Senior Vice President, and Dai Houliang and Zhang Haichao as vice presidents. Zhang Jiaren and Cao Xianghong have retired as senior vice presidents because of "old age".

(Inter Press Service)



Northeast cleans up after chemical blast (Nov 30, '05)

The death of China's rivers (Aug 26, '03)

 
 



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