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Pollution scandal figure found dead

BEIJING – A deputy mayor who assured the public that an explosion at a petrochemical plant in China’s northeast caused no pollution has been found dead in his home, officials said Wednesday.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, pledged for the first time to punish anyone who tried to cover up the massive toxic spill caused by the blast.

In a sign of political sensitivity, state media did not report the death of Wang Wei, deputy mayor of the city of Jilin, where the Nov. 13 accident occurred. But several city officials confirmed he was discovered dead Tuesday, and a journalist familiar with the situation said he was believed to have committed suicide.

Because he was responsible for industrial safety in Jilin and played a prominent role in the city’s response to the explosion, Wang, 43, was expected to be questioned and perhaps prosecuted for his role and the role of others involved in the 10-day effort to hide the toxic spill from the public.

The death heightened the sense of crisis that has surrounded the Communist Party’s struggle to address the environmental disaster on the Songhua River and ease the public anger that the slow and secretive initial response to the spill has generated here and abroad.

The spill of 100 tons of benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals into the Songhua has caused disruptions in water supplies to millions in the region, including a five-day shutoff in the major city of Harbin. The long toxic slick is slowly diluting and moving toward Russia, where it is expected to arrive early next week in the border city of Khabarovsk.