Chinese chemical plant explosion threatens water supply for major city

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

A large scale environmental accident is causing wide-spread disruptions to water supplies in Harbin, China after an accidental release of toxins two weeks ago at a chemical plant. Water supplies are being shipped in amidst a relative calm, Thursday. Local officials have suggested normal water supplies may resume in some form as early as Sunday.

An explosion at a workshop of the No. 101 Chemical Plant of the Jilin Petrochemical Company in Jilin City on November 13 resulted in the accidental release of benzene and benzene-like organic compounds, including nitrobenzene, into the Songhua River. The upstream position of the plant relative to the Chinese city of Harbin made the pollution a risk to the health of its populace; the solution of ceasing public water production will leave more than 3.8 million people without public drinking water for three or more days. Harbin, the capital of the neighboring Heilongjiang province, is located about 380km (230 miles) from the plant and is itself located near the middle of the 1,897 km long Songhua River–from which it derives the majority of its water supplies. Benzene is a carcinogen, and the levels initially released into the Songhua River were 108 times the national safety levels for the country. By November 21, the polluted area included roughly 80 kilometers of the Songhua River.

The State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) as well as local experts and officials have worked on a pollution-control campaign and emergency schemes have been launched by the two provincial governments to limit the effects of the environmental incidents. Jilin also quickly acted to block the further entry of the pollutants into the river and released large volumes of water from a reservoir in order to dilute them; at this time, Harbin added active carbon powders in quantities reaching 1,400 tons and more in order to purify the water. The densities of the benzene and nitrobenzene substances in the river near Jilin have dropped to levels within the state safety guidelines since the accidental release. The water that will pass through Harbin is expected to contain only small amounts of the toxic pollutants and to pass through Friday morning based upon its current speed. In preparation for the passage of these pollutants, the municipal government of Harbin has established an emergency medical care system composed of 15 hospitals to treat residents that may be exposed to contamination.

Zhang Dingbang, deputy secretary of the municipal government, said, at the first press conference since the incident that was held Wednesday, that Harbin is drilling 100 new wells in order to obtain 80,000 tons of underground water in addition to its current output from 918 wells of 320,000 tons every day. Nevertheless, thousand of tons of purified water have been provided by neighboring regions and enterprise donations, which will further increase this supply. Harbin residents have collected more than 300,000 tons of water as of Tuesday. Liu Yuzhu, a senior official with the municipal water supply and drainage corporation, has said that this supply is expected to provide for the daily average use of 18,600 tons per day for the three days required for the clear passage of the pollutants through the area.