11/24/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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80-kilometre slick of contaminated water reaches Harbin

Benzene levels in contaminated water are 30 times higher than safety levels. It can poison and cause cancer and other diseases. Residents are angry but resigned to see the slick pass through. Russia is also expected to suffer from the pollution.

Harbin (AsiaNews/Agencies) – An 80-km-long (48-mile) slick of contaminated water is slowly making its way along the course of the Songhua River and has reached the city of Harbin (northern China) in the early morning hours of today.

The authorities admitted there was a "serious pollution problem" in the Songhua only yesterday even though it was caused by a November 13 explosion at a petrochemical plan in Jilin, a city that is 380 km (235 miles) south of Harbin.

China's environmental watchdog agency found benzene levels in the river near the plant 108 times the safe limit on the day after the explosion. This threatens people at risk like children and the elderly, and should such water be consumed over a long period of time, it can cause cancer and diseases of the blood.

When the contaminated slick reached the border of Jilin and Heilongjiang, pollution levels dropped to 29.1 times above national safety levels.

A strange quietness now has come over Harbin after two days of panic in which residents took to stores in a frenzy attempt to buy up as much food and water as they could whilst others jammed roads out of the city trying to flee.

Initially, the price of water had more than doubled but now supplies of bottled water have arrived from neighbouring cities and the rush has stopped.

Schools have been closed for a week and many parents have sent their children off to relatives in other cities.

Heilongjiang provincial government has shipped 2,000 tonnes of water from neighbouring cities, but this a drop in the bucket since Harbin requires on average 18,600 tonnes per day.

Anyone living within 1,000 metre (1110 yards) from the river is being evacuated and walking by the river has been banned.

Bathhouses, car washes, and beauty salons have been shut down.

Many restaurants are still open with one outlet displaying a banner that said: "Dear customers, you can rest assured that eating here is safe as we have a deep well of our own." Still, few customers seemed prepared to take their chances.

The water system was back up working yesterday at 9 am but was shut down again at 11pm (local time).

The Harbin city government ordered the city's 74 local mineral and distilled water companies to operate at full capacity and sent 148 officials to monitor production.

It has also set up official stores in residential neighbourhoods to offer drinking water at fair prices and set aside one million yuan to help the poor buy drinking water.

Finally, the city has stockpiled tonnes of activated carbon to filter water from the Songhua River.

Despite the city's best efforts, Harbin residents are really angry at the authorities and worried about political leaders' lies and half truths.

The news report about the pollution incident was officially released only ten days after the accident. Had the information been made public in a timely fashion, the mad rush for food and water was not likely to have happened.

Even today, people are not sure whether water supplies were suspended for only four days as the authorities announced or for a longer period of time.

Residents are also asking themselves why safety measures have not been implemented in Jilin and other towns and cities that rely on the Songhua River for their water.

Cao Jianfeng, from Jilin University's College of Environment and Resources, said the city's water supplies were not affected by the explosion last week because it draws its water upriver from the chemical plant. Moreover, the polluted section of the river mainly flowed through rural areas and fears of flooding meant most people lived far from the river "so farmers usually use well water from their homes," he said.

Still many farmers and towns do depend on the river for drinking water, washing and irrigation.

Meanwhile, Moscow has been urgently seeking information from the Chinese for the slick of contaminated water is likely to affect Russia as well. It is expected in fact to reach the eastern Khabarovsk region (Siberia) on Friday, amid fears of possible contamination of the Amur River, of which the Songhua is a tributary. (PB)

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