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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Spill in China Brings Danger, and Cover-Up - New York Times

Spill in China Brings Danger, and Cover-Up - New York TimesNovember 26, 2005
Spill in China Brings Danger, and Cover-Up
By JIM YARDLEY

HARBIN, China, Nov. 25 - A toxic 50-mile band of contaminated river water slowly washed through this frigid provincial capital on Friday, leaving schools and many businesses closed, forcing millions of people to spend a third straight day without running water and raising fears of a long-term environmental disaster.

Yet a local newspaper seemed just as concerned about a disaster that did not happen. "There Will Not Be an Earthquake in Harbin," promised a large front-page headline in The Modern Evening Times.

The strange headline, coming as nationwide attention in China is focused on the dangerous benzene and nitrobenzene spill that contaminated the local Songhua River, seemed to have been a misprint. But, instead, it was an effort to dispel the wild rumors that mushroomed after Monday, when city officials pointedly did not mention the spill of the liquid chemicals in their initial public notice shutting down the municipal water system.

The city tried to convince the public that a shutdown was necessary to conduct routine repairs on the pipes. Suspicions instantly erupted. There had already been an inexplicable rash of rumors that the government had detected signs of an earthquake. Now those rumors escalated, and enough people panicked that officials had to confirm the spill, but the public relations damage was already done.

It seems that in their efforts to hide a chemical spill, Harbin officials may have helped fuel unfounded fears of an earthquake. The provincial earthquake bureau has since issued a reassuring statement that no temblors are predicted.

"They were trying to lie and get by," Qi Guangzhong, 64, said as he walked on a promenade beside the brown waters of the Songhua on Friday. "The government wanted to hide this."

The earthquake rumors, if bizarre, are just one of the consequences of a government response that appeared secretive and misleading at a time when China is eager to prove to the outside world that it is a candid international partner on issues like containing avian influenza.

In the Chinese news media and on the Internet, public anger seethed this week over the spill, in which an estimated 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene poured into the river after an explosion at the state-owned Jilin Petrochemical Company in Jilin City, 236 miles upstream from Harbin. One citizen has already sued the state-owned company responsible for the spill, seeking a symbolic $2 and a public apology, state news media reported.

The public dissatisfaction came as the central government on Friday sent an inspection team, including disciplinary officials, to investigate the spill and its aftermath in Harbin. "The presence of disciplinary officials in the team indicates punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way," the official New China News Agency reported.

At the same time, teams of environmental officials began gauging the potential damage on the Songhua as signs appeared that the immediate crisis was easing. Readings taken from the river showed that the toxicity of the water was steadily declining as inflows of water and the progression of the spill diluted the toxicity.

On the streets of Harbin, life seemed normal, if somewhat surreal, given that a major metropolitan area of several million people had almost no running water or usable toilets and that thousands of residents seemed to have fled. But the public anxiety from earlier in the week eased noticeably after the arrival of truckloads of bottled water to prevent shortages in drinking supplies.

City officials, reacting to initial reports of price gouging, put a freeze on water prices. At several corner markets, boxes of water were stacked high outside. On one street, a crowd of people stood around a fire truck, waiting for water.

"We're not worried," said a teenager playing on a swing set at a playground near the river.

Harbin officials have said the water system could be restored as soon as Saturday, when the slick of polluted water is expected to move past the city on its slowly moving path through northeastern China toward Russia. But it seemed more likely that the system would remain shut down for several days as officials determine the potential environmental and public health risks. The river supplies more than 80 percent of Harbin's public water supply.

Scientists in China have already warned of potentially dangerous long-term hazards as the benzene seeps into the soil near the riverbed or is ingested by fish and other marine life. The chemical factory, a subsidiary of state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's largest oil company, produces benzene, a colorless liquid derived from petroleum. Drinking liquids with high levels of benzene can cause illness or even death. Benzene is also considered a carcinogen, and is linked particularly to a variety of leukemia and lymphoma.

Ma Jun, an environmentalist in Beijing and author of "China's Water Crisis," said the chemical spill had exposed enormous potential problems that existed all across China after decades of rampant industrial development. In fact, one person was killed Friday in an explosion at another chemical plant, in Sichuan Province.

"We're in the process of quadrupling our economy," Mr. Ma said. "The risks are also growing. Pollution discharges are rising. We need to face the reality that we are becoming a society at risk."

Mr. Ma also blamed the chemical plant for initially denying the spill. "Instead of informing the downstream cities and communities that they were in the path of danger, it just kept denying the toxic spill," he said. "This denial is not acceptable."

Chinese health officials were sharply criticized for covering up the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which originated in southern China in November 2002 but was not acknowledged by the authorities for several months, and then only after it had spread to Hong Kong and Beijing.

Since then, the government has earned growing praise from international health officials for being more open and responsive about public health outbreaks, like avian influenza. Lately, however, scientists have begun to question the low number of bird flu infections listed in China, which has reported only three, compared with 91 in Vietnam, with less than a tenth the population.

On Friday, the roles played by different government agencies in the chemical spill began to emerge in a flurry of articles published in the Chinese media. The different accounts, including some from the official New China News Agency, suggest that officials in Jilin and Harbin had initially sought to prevent news of the explosion from reaching the public.

After the explosion that caused the spill, factory officials initially announced that the accident posed no threat of air pollution. Officials also denied at that time that any benzene had spilled into the Songhua.

Apparently, government officials in Jilin also initially denied the chemical spill to their downstream neighbors in Heilongjiang Province, home of Harbin. But Jilin officials finally told their peers in Heilongjiang on Nov. 19, according to a Shanghai newspaper, The News Morning Post.

Meanwhile, China Youth Daily reported that local environmental officials in Jilin had first sought to dilute the spill by dumping reservoir water into the Songhua, rather than telling the public. By Monday, officials in Harbin were preparing to announce the shutdown of the water supply but feared news of the chemical spill would incite a public panic, according to The News Morning Post. So they made the announcement about the maintenance work on the pipes.

In serious accidents like this one, provincial and local officials often wait for cues from the central government in Beijing on how to respond publicly. It is unclear if top leaders played a role in the official subterfuge about the spill. Some unconfirmed reports said Prime Minister Wen Jiabao eventually ordered disclosure of the problem in Harbin.

The official English-language newspaper, China Daily, published an unusually blunt commentary that singled out the chemical company for criticism.

"We do not know what is behind the cover-up," the commentary stated. "It might be because they were afraid that they would have to pay money for the losses the pollution has incurred in Harbin, and it might be because they were afraid of losing face.

"But the fact is they have brought shame on themselves by covering up the truth."

The China Daily commentary portrayed Harbin officials as innocent victims who had responded effectively to the crisis. But many Harbin residents were immediately suspicious when city officials announced that the water would be stopped for maintenance work.

Mr. Qi, the man walking along the river, said the timing was too strange: Why would the city do routine work when the subzero temperatures of winter are about to begin?

Standing beside the river, Mr. Qi said he had first learned of the explosion by watching a Shanghai television station. "People are angry," he said. "The consequences could have been grave if people had started drinking the water and dying."

Then, he gazed at the brown, partly frozen waters. "It looks the same today, maybe even a little better," Mr. Qi said. "The pollution is always heavy in the river."

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