- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2005

HARBIN, China — Running water was restored yesterday in this city of 3.8 million people where a chemical spill forced a five-day shutdown, but officials warned it was not immediately safe to drink.

Water supplies were restored in Harbin at 6 p.m. — about five hours earlier than expected, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said tests showed a 50-mile spill of toxic benzene in the Songhua River had passed the city in northeast China.

State television showed the governor of Heilongjiang province, where Harbin is located, drinking a glass of boiled water drawn from a tap at a local family’s home.

“It tastes good,” Gov. Zhang Zuoji said.

But Wang Minghe, deputy general manager of the Harbin water department, said the water was still “dangerous” to drink “because it’s been sitting in pipes for five days.” He said it should be used only for other purposes, such as washing.

“We will advise citizens when they can drink the water,” he told reporters, who were taken on a tour of a water-treatment plant.

The government will cut water fees to encourage the public to use water as quickly as possible over the next few days to flush out the old supply and “enable it to be drinkable sooner,” Mr. Wang said.

Earlier yesterday, Liu Yurun, general manager for the Harbin Water Group, the city’s water utility, said local radio and television stations would broadcast a color-based indicator of water safety over the next few days — red for unusable, yellow for bathing only and green for drinking.

Work crews were installing more than 1,000 tons of carbon filters at water plants in preparation for treating supplies from the Songhua, according to state media.

Before service resumed, people lined up for another day in cold winds holding out buckets and teakettles for free water delivered by trucks from wells operated by factories and a brewery. The city also had trucked in millions of bottles of drinking water and said it was drilling 100 new water wells.

The Harbin disaster resulted from a Nov. 13 explosion at a chemical plant in Jilin, a city about 120 miles southeast. Five persons were killed and 10,000 evacuated.

But it was only last week that the government announced the Songhua had been poisoned with 100 tons of benzene. The spill is possibly the biggest ever of the chemical, a potentially cancer-causing compound used in making detergents and plastics.

State media have criticized local officials for reacting too slowly and failing to tell the public the truth promptly. Environmentalists have said the government failed to prepare for such a disaster and questioned the decision to allow construction of a plant handling such dangerous materials near important water supplies.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao promised a full investigation when he visited Harbin on Saturday and told leaders to see that every resident got running water.

The spill is an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao’s government, which has made a priority of looking after ordinary Chinese and of repairing environmental damage from 25 years of sizzling economic growth.

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