- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

HARBIN, China — The government yesterday defended its handling of a chemical-plant explosion that sent a 50-mile-long slick of toxic river water coursing through a major city — a crisis made public only 10 days after the spill.

The benzene slick on the Songhua River in northeastern China flowed into Harbin yesterday, days after the city of 3.8 million people shut down its water system, setting off panicked buying that cleared supermarket shelves of bottled water, milk and soft drinks. The government said it would take about 40 hours for the chemical to pass the city.

The plant operator, a subsidiary of a state-owned oil company, is to blame for the deadly Nov. 13 blast, not government regulators, said the deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration.

“It was handled properly,” the official, Zhang Lijun, said at a crowded press conference in Beijing.

The government did not publicly confirm that the Songhua had been poisoned with benzene until Wednesday, 10 days after the explosion, which killed five persons. But Mr. Zhang said that local officials and companies were told as soon as the spill was detected and that they stopped using river water.

“Authorities acted that day, and not one person has been sickened,” he said.

The disaster has highlighted the environmental damage caused by China’s sizzling economic growth and the complaints that the secretive communist government is failing to enforce standards meant to protect the public. The government has said that all of China’s major rivers are dangerously polluted and that many cities lack adequate drinking water.

With its huge population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer shortages of water for drinking or industry. Protests have erupted in rural areas throughout China over complaints that pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops.

Downstream from Harbin, authorities in the Russian border city of Khabarovsk complained that they have not received enough information on the threat flowing toward them. The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which flows into Russia, where it is called the Amur River.

But Mr. Zhang said Beijing has shared information and might set up a hot line with Moscow. He suggested that complaints were premature, saying the chemical would take two weeks to reach Russia.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said officials briefed the Russian Embassy twice this week.

“The Chinese side attaches great importance to the potential impact and harm caused by the pollution on our neighbor Russia,” he said.

The chemical plant, located in Jilin, a city about 120 miles southeast of Harbin, is operated by a subsidiary of China’s biggest oil company, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC). Benzene is used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents and pesticides.

“We will be very clear about who’s responsible. It is the chemical plant of the CNPC,” Mr. Zhang said.

Asked whether the company might face criminal charges or fines, he said, “It hasn’t been decided yet.”

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