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New water fears arise in rural China

Another town on a poisoned Chinese river shut its water off Wednesday. Running water to 26,000 people in Dalianhe was stopped as toxic benzene on the Songhua River approached — days after Harbin, a major industrial center, was similarly affected.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Another town on a poisoned Chinese river shut down its water system Wednesday after Communist Party members went door-to-door giving out bottled water in an effort to show that China’s leaders can protect the public from the latest environmental disaster.

Running water to about 26,000 people in Dalianhe, on the outskirts of this northeastern city, stopped at 6 p.m. as a slick of toxic benzene on the Songhua River approached, said an employee who answered the phone at the county government offices.

“It will last three days,” said the employee, who would give only his surname, Gu.

The government said Yilan itself should not be affected because the city of about 110,000 people gets its water from wells instead of the river.

The benzene arrived a day after Harbin, a major industrial center upstream, declared its water safe to drink after the system supplying 3.8 million people was shut down for five days.

The spill caused by a deadly Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion has embarrassed President Hu Jintao’s government, which has promised to clean up the environment and do more to help ordinary Chinese.

In Yilan, television broadcast hours of reports Wednesday on the water shutdown, including a government statement warning the public not to use river water. The show of openness contrasted sharply with complaints that officials upstream tried to hide the chemical spill and initially lied about the reason for shutting down Harbin’s water.

Leaflets door to door
News reports showed police and party members in red armbands going door-to-door in freezing weather, handing out leaflets and giving cases of drinking water to the elderly and poor. An elderly man lying in bed shook hands with a police commander.

Communist leaders are eager to show that while they failed to prevent the chemical spill, they are concerned about public safety and can marshal the resources to get the region through the aftermath.

“I really thank the government,” another man, identified as Zhou Changgui, was shown saying.

The 50-mile-long slick is making its way toward Russia and is expected to reach the major border city of Khabarovsk on Dec. 10-12. The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which becomes the Amur in Russia and runs through Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in the sparsely populated Far East.

With a steady snow falling Wednesday, the Amur was iced over near Khabarovsk’s river port, where summer vacationers and shuttle traders make trips in warmer months between China and Russia.

‘Major problem’
Residents have scooped up bottled water in stores, leaving many shops with only carbonated water. People in the city already are stocking up on water at homes, filling bathtubs and any container they can find.

Also, Health Minister Gao Qiang warned against complacency after the spill passed Harbin, saying it is still 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 news conference.

In Yilan, the government notice promised to “safeguard market and social stability” — a warning to merchants not to raise prices for bottled water.

“Both the county government and residents have stored enough water for at least five days,” said another employee of the county government headquarters, who would give only his surname, Ma.

Ma said the county had dug five wells and would be distributing water by truck.

Yilan closed riverfront parks to keep the public away from the poison-laced water. The city lies at the intersection of the Songhua and Mudan rivers, a famous scenic spot.

Benzene likely in spring’s thaw
Experts say the damage is likely to be long-lasting but the full effects will not be known until at least early next year with the thaw of river ice believed to contain benzene.

“The benzene will remain in the ice until spring, and the (situation) will be dragged out,” said Ilya Mitasov, a Moscow-based spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He told a Moscow news conference that a higher than normal level of benzene had been detected in the river, but it was not determined “whether it’s ours or Chinese.”

The river could take 10 years or more to flush out pollutants absorbed by mud and microorganisms, said Zhang Qingxiang, an environmental expert at Shanghai’s East China University of Science and Technology.

“If the river floods its banks,” said Yu Wenlong, a farmer who plans to plant corn, potatoes and soybeans on riverside land, “there could be contamination of the soil and that would be bad for us.”