- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

HARBIN, China — China’s leaders sent a team yesterday to investigate a chemical plant accident that poisoned a major river and warned that officials responsible will be punished as the 3.8 million residents of this northeastern city went a third frigid day without running water.

Hundreds of villagers in northeast China near Harbin on the Songhua River were being evacuated as toxic benzene flowed past, while a Russian city downstream braced for its arrival.

In China’s southwest, about 6,000 people reportedly were evacuated following a second chemical plant explosion, raising fears of a new poisoning disaster.

In Harbin, a city located in the northernmost of China’s three eastern provinces, once known officially as Manchuria, a line of about 500 people stretching for 100 yards waited in windy, subzero weather for water to come by truck.

When a truck with a tank on its bed arrived, residents rushed to fill tea kettles, buckets and basins from five spigots.



“Everyone has enough at home for the basics, but they want to add some for washing and cooking,” said Guan Hongya, 54, manager for a textile firm, who was filling buckets to carry back to her third-floor, walk-up apartment.

The team of investigators sent to Harbin included disciplinary officials, which “indicates punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported. It didn’t give any other details. But Chinese leaders have come to rely on such hand-picked teams to investigate disasters, tacitly acknowledging they cannot trust information from local officials.

The Nov. 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin, about 120 miles southeast of Harbin, highlighted complaints that the government is failing to protect the public from the environmental damage caused by China’s roaring economic growth.

The disaster “has stunned the whole nation,” Xinhua said, in an apparent effort to assure the public that Chinese President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders share their shock and anger.

The government earlier said the 50-mile-long flow of benzene was expected to pass Harbin early today. But the city’s deputy Communist Party secretary, Du Yuxin, said that water service might not resume until Monday. Officials had said they might need extra time to make sure supplies are safe.

Usually docile government newspapers criticized the handling of the disaster. The government failed to detect the spill of benzene — possibly the world’s largest — for several days, and Harbin city leaders said this week they were shutting down its water system without initially telling the public why.

Environmentalists have accused the government of failing to prepare for such a disaster and of failing to react quickly enough. They have questioned the decision to allow construction of a plant handling such dangerous materials near important water supplies.

Environmental officials blame the spill on the chemical plant’s owner, a subsidiary of China’s biggest oil company, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp.

China’s environmental agency says the pollutants are expected to reach Russia in about two weeks. The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which crosses the border and becomes the Amur in Russia, flowing through the city of Khabarovsk.

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