01/26/2007, 00.00
CHINA
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Company only fined for benzene slick in Songhua River

The company responsible for the 2005 environmental disaster that affected the Songha River (100 tonnes of benzene in the river) is ordered to pay maximum fine of one million yuan. But a year ago the court rejected a 10 billion yuan demand for damages to the environment.

Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Jilin Petrochemical, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corp, was ordered to pay one million yuan (US$ 128,000) for polluting the Songhua River in 2005. That amount is the maximum possible fine but has never been imposed before on corporate polluters. The court however rejected a petition for damages.

The incident began when a blast that killed eight people at the company’s chemical plant just south of the city of Jilin also discharged about 100 tonnes of highly carcinogen benzene into the Songha River.

The benzene created an 80 kilometre (50-mile) slick that flowed downriver poisoning the river’s water and shores and depriving millions of drinking water. However, the information was kept secret for days and was made public only when water supplies to the city of Harbin were cut off, leaving 3.8 million residents in Heilongjiang province with no access to clean water.

A wave of protest hit company bosses and the authorities for hiding the information and led to the resignation of Xie Zhenhua, then chief of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA).

Jilin’s deputy mayor, Wang Wei, was found dead at his home on December 6, 2005, the day after he was dismissed from his functions.

The slick of contaminated water eventually reached Siberia where the river is called Amur and the Russian city of Khabarovsk causing an international protest.

SEPA found the company guilty of three counts of breaking environmental law and imposed the maximum fine, but for many the 1989 law no longer meets modern requirements.

Now individuals and public agencies are likely to sue the company for damages.

Prof Wang Jin from Peking University filed a lawsuit one month after the incident, demanding compensation of 10 billion yuan (US$ 1.25 billion) from the company to restore the environment.

The case was not accepted by the court, but sparked discussions over who should foot the bill for cleaning up the environment.

Early this month Beijing adopted a plan that includes spending 13.4 billion yuan (US$ 1.7 billion) to clean up the Songhua River and put in place pollution controls by 2010. (PB)

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