updated 12/6/2005 5:18:48 AM ET 2005-12-06T10:18:48

A city of 480,000 people in China’s northeast rushed a new water plant into operation as a toxic spill on a nearby river arrived Tuesday and the city was forced to shut down other water facilities for fear of contamination, the local government said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to China expressed concern that Beijing hadn’t reacted quickly enough to the spill, which was caused by a chemical plant explosion on Nov. 13.

“It seems it took a while to come to the attention of the central government, and of course, that’s a bit worrisome to us because we remember SARS and how that took a little while to come to people’s attention,” Ambassador Clark T. Randt told U.S. business executives in Hong Kong. He was referring to China’s 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

President Bush has told the embassy in Beijing to offer help, and China has accepted, Randt said. “We are sending to China an environmental impact assessment team,” he said.

The spill of cancer-causing benzene and related compounds into the Songhua River has disrupted drinking water supplies to millions of people in China, and a Russian city downstream is bracing for the arrival of the chemicals early next week.

Tests showed that the spill reached the Chinese city of Jiamusi early Tuesday, said a man with the public affairs department of the Heilongjiang Provincial Environmental Protection Office. The man would only give his surname, Wu.

The nitrobenzene density was more than eight times above the safe level, the official Xinhua News Service said. The chemical steam has been getting longer and more diluted as it flows slowly though the ice-covered river.

Upstream in Harbin, a major city that shut off running water to 3.8 million people for five days because of the spill, the government is borrowing $79 million to pay for recovery efforts, a news report said, giving the first indication of the disaster’s economic impact.

Major hit to local economy
The water shutdown in Harbin forced factories to close and disrupted business at hotels, restaurants and other companies. The government has not said whether those businesses, as well as farmers, fishermen and others, might be able to seek compensation.

The city of Jiamusi opened a new water treatment facility Monday afternoon — several months early — to ensure water supplies while the stream of chemicals passes, the local Communist Party newspaper Jiamusi Daily said.

On Friday, the Jiamusi city government shut down parts of its No. 7 Water Plant, which is near the river, in order to avoid contamination, saying the plant draws on ground water wells but is located near the river.

Four of the plant’s wells closest to the river have been shut, said its general manager, Wang Li. It was still using three wells that were up to two miles from the river’s banks, he said.

“It will be hard for the contamination to get into the ground water, but we will keep testing,” Wang said.

The plant usually supplies up to 80 percent of Jiamusi’s running water, or 34 million gallons a day. On Tuesday, it was pumping only 5 million to 8 million gallons because of the partial shutdown, Wang said.

The new Jiangbei Water Source, which is farther from the river than the old plant, is capable of producing 26 million gallons of water per day, the Jiamusi Daily said.

The city government has ordered several thousand villagers living near the Songhua to stop using shallow ground water wells, but says running water to the rest of the city should continue functioning normally and there were no plans to close schools.

The director of China’s environmental protection agency has resigned to take the blame for the spill, and the general manager and two other employees of the company that owns the plant have been removed from their posts.

There has been no indication that local Communist Party leaders, who are accused of initially trying to conceal the spill, might face punishment.

The spill is expected to cross the Russian border on Dec. 13. Below-freezing temperatures on the river were slowing the stream of benzene, which stretches 90 miles.

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