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China City Gets Water; Not Safe to Drink

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/world/wire/sns-ap-china-water-panic,0,5064026.story?coll=sns-ap-world-headlines China City Gets Water; Not Safe to
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 28, 2005

      China City Gets Water; Not Safe to Drink

      Associated Press Writer

      November 28, 2005, 8:26 AM EST

      HARBIN, China -- Five days after an embarrassing
      chemical spill, China's government celebrated the
      return of running water to this city of 3.8 million as
      a victory for the communist system while warning the
      water was still not safe to drink.

      The spill was a political disaster for President Hu
      Jintao's government and cast a harsh light on the
      environmental costs of China's breakneck development.

      Hu's government issued apologies to China's public and
      to Russia, where a border city downstream is bracing
      for the arrival of the 50-mile-long benzene slick.

      State media have accused officials of lying about and
      trying to conceal the spill -- the result of a Nov. 13
      chemical plant blast in Jilin, a city upstream from
      Harbin, that killed five people and forced 10,000 more
      to flee their homes.

      But on Monday, media coverage was effusively upbeat,
      with newspaper photos showing smiling children in
      Harbin running their taps and water surging through
      treatment plants.

      "We won!" said a headline in the newspaper Life News
      below a photo of the provincial governor drinking a
      glass of boiled tap water on Sunday.

      But officials warned that the water wasn't immediately
      safe to drink, or bathe in, after lying in underground
      pipes for five days. They said they would let the
      public know when the water was potable again but gave
      no indication with that would be.

      "It's back, but I don't know what I can use it for
      yet," said Guan Hongya, a manager for a textile
      company. "We can use it to flush the toilet, but
      otherwise it might be no good."

      Premier Wen Jiabao has promised to investigate the
      disaster and punish those responsible. But state media
      also have been portraying efforts to keep this major
      industrial city supplied with drinking water as a
      triumph for the communist system.

      On Monday, some residents were still lining up in
      sunny but subfreezing weather to get drinking water
      from fire trucks and tankers sent by state companies.

      State television in Heilongjiang province broadcast a
      variety show featuring young women in jade-green
      costumes dancing with empty 10-gallon water bottles on
      their shoulders. A comedian played with a giant squirt
      gun. Harbin is the capital of the province in China's
      frigid northeast.

      The audience included provincial Gov. Zhang Zuoji,
      local officials and paramilitary police who had helped
      to distribute water. Banners behind the stage showed
      the names of nearby cities that sent fleets of water
      trucks to Harbin.

      There was no immediate announcement of when public
      schools, shut since last week, would reopen.

      The pollutants were expected to reach Russian
      territory within days and Khabarovsk, a city of
      580,000, within weeks. The Songhua flows into the
      Heilong River, which crosses the border and becomes
      the Amur in Russia.

      A group of Russian experts flew to Harbin on Monday to
      check on the spill's location and pollution levels,
      the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

      Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday it
      was preparing to shut off running water and would
      airlift activated carbon to help water treatment
      facilities along the Amur River absorb the spill.

      Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said later
      the deadly chemical could flow into Russia within the
      next two weeks. He said officials were ready to block
      running water and start water deliveries.

      Vladislav Bolov, a ministry official in charge of
      efforts to respond to the spill, said Monday the
      benzene concentration in the Amur most likely will be
      up to 10 times greater than normal.

      "We have built up supplies of drinking water," Bolov
      said at a news conference, according to the ITAR-Tass
      news agency.

      Gennady Onishchenko, Russia's chief sanitary official,
      urged Khabarovsk residents to create water reserves at
      their homes before the running water was shut off.

      Environmentalists have criticized China's response to
      the spill and questioned the decision to allow a
      facility handling such dangerous materials near a key
      water source.

      The plant is operated by a subsidiary of China's
      biggest oil company, state-owned China National
      Petroleum Corp., which has apologized for the

      The announcement that Harbin would suspend water
      service triggered panic-buying of bottled water, soft
      drinks and milk. Schools closed and residents stocked
      up on water in bathtubs and tea kettles.

      But despite the initial anxiety, many took the water
      cutoff stoically, lining up in biting cold for
      supplies from trucks.

      China has suffered a string of such disasters in
      recent years, each leading to official promises of
      more rigorous enforcement of environmental rules or
      more sensitivity to public worries.

      Industrial pollution is a sensitive issue, with
      protests reported nationwide over complaints that
      factory discharges are ruining crops and local water

      Protesters often accuse officials of failing to
      enforce environmental standards, either in exchange
      for bribes or for fear of harming economic growth. The
      government says all major rivers are dangerously
      polluted, threatening water supplies for millions.

      With its huge population, China ranks among countries
      with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds
      of cities regularly suffer water shortages.
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