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Chemical spill effects may endure for years

Wed., Nov. 30, 2005

HARBIN, China – Experts warned Tuesday that dangers from a huge chemical spill in this northeastern Chinese city could last for years because of toxins – including cancer-causing benzene – imbedded in ice and mud at the bottom of the Songhua River.

Their concern came as city officials in Harbin and down river in Russia’s Far East, where the 50-mile-long chemical slick was headed, sought to reassure residents their tap water was clean.

“Harbin’s water is now safe to use and drink,” Xiu Tinggong, vice director of the city’s health inspection bureau, said on local state television. “Everybody can rest assured.”

In Khabarovsk, Russia, a top environmental official drank a glass of tap water on television to show his confidence in its purity. Officials estimate the benzene spill flowing from the Songhua into the larger Heilong River, called the Amur in Russia, should reach the border city around Dec. 10 – or sooner.

Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang said the incident highlighted a “major problem.”

“This matter has alerted us to the need for perfect contingency plans and the effective implementation of those plans when faced with an emergency,” Gao said at a press conference Wednesday.

Water was shut off for five days in Harbin, the capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang famed for its annual winter ice festival, after the Nov. 13 explosion at a nearby chemical plant. The blast, which authorities said killed five people, spewed 100 tons of benzene and related toxins into the Songhua, which passes through Harbin and provides most of the city’s drinking water.

Running water resumed Sunday for Harbin’s 3.8 million people, but many residents said they were sticking with bottled water. In parts of the city, water from taps ran dirty.

In Russia, the Emergency Situations Ministry said the pollutants could affect 70 Russian cities and villages with a total of over 1 million residents along the Amur River. A spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature said the river faced “ecological catastrophe” from the chemical slick.

The pollution will result in widespread fish deaths and force residents and industries to search for alternative sources of water, he told the Associated Press by telephone.

The only way to get rid of the toxins is evaporation, but water temperatures would have to be 68 degrees Fahrenheit to start that process, Mitasov said. Currently it’s about 50 degrees, and there is ice on some stretches of the Amur River, which ultimately feeds into the Sea of Okhotsk.

“The benzene will remain in the ice until spring, and the (situation) will be dragged out,” Mitasov said.

Zhang Qingxiang, professor of environmental studies at Shanghai’s East China University of Science and Technology, also warned that the Songhua’s spring thaw could bring another wave of benzene contamination.

Authorities “should pay much attention next spring when the ice is going to melt,” Zhang said.

Even more serious were pollutants absorbed into the riverbed, including by aquatic plants and micro-organisms, Zhang said. Declining water quality could take 10 years or more to recover, he said, time enough for fish to introduce benzene into the food chain.

“This is going to break the ecological balance,” Zhang said.


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