11/25/2005, 00.00
CHINA
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Pollution fears and distrusts in officials and politicians grow

At least 100 tonnes of toxic chemicals were released into the Songhua River. There are fears the benzene might remain on the river banks and frozen ice for the whole winter. Experts and media are critical of the government.

Beijing (AsiaNews/SCMP) – At least 100 tonnes of toxic chemicals were released into the Songhua River as a result of an explosion at a petrochemical plan owned by the  China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) in Jilin on November 13, said Zhang Lijun, deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration.

The slick of contaminated water is passing through Harbin on its way to other cities, whilst the government's handling of the emergency situation is coming under increasing criticism.

Up to the last moment, the CNPC denied that there was any pollution insisting that the benzene had broken down in the water, leaving only traces of harmless carbon dioxide.

However, Zeng Yukang, deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corp, expressed "sympathy and deep apologies" late last night to the people of Harbin.

He confirmed that the toxic slick had reached the city in the early hours of Thursday and that it is still had not left it.

Today its concentration was 33 times higher than the accepted norm. Before Harbin the slick had gone through the town of Songyuan without causing any problems for two days because local water supplies come from underground water

In Harbin residents living near the river have been evacuated. This happened to the 300 people from the village of Niujiadian and Gou Island.

More than one thousand soldiers are involved in setting up pipes to suck up the benzene.

Government sources said they expected the water system to resume operations by Sunday.

But Harbin mayor Shi Zhong is concerned that the toxic substances might penetrate the ground on the river banks and stick to the frozen areas of the river till spring.

Critics have not spared the government for the way it handled the situation.

Zhang Ming, from Beijing's Renmin University, accused local governments of dereliction of duty and telling lies.

Newspapers point out that the Songhua is 1927-kilometers long running through 30 major cities and countless villages whose residents have been left in the dark and without protection.

Heilongjiang provincial governor Zhang Zuoji said he was concerned that many farmers might not have heard or read public announcements and might still be using river water.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty comes the news that another explosion occurred in a chemical plant in Chongqing (central China) killing one person and injuring three. The local press reported that 6,000 residents of the area were evacuated and widespread fear over benzene pollution. Officials with the environmental protection agency have warned locals against using river water; two local schools have also been closed

Benzene is a dangerous toxic that can cause anaemia, cancer and blood disorders.

After Harbin the next large city waiting for the slick to arrive is Jiamusi; fortunately for its residents, the water system relies on underground aquifers, not river water.

In neighbouring Russia people are getting increasingly worried. The slick of contaminated water is expected to reach the border by November 26; on November 30 or December 1 it should be in Khabarovsk, a city of 650,000 people. There are real fears that it might pollute the entire local water system. (PB)

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