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China's premier visits waterless city
Updated: 2005-11-26 16:26

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Harbin, Northeast China, Saturday, giving a pep talk to troops delivering water-filtering materials as its 3.8 million people endured a fourth day without running water, waiting for a spill of toxic benzene in a nearby river to pass.

The government told residents that water supplies, suspended to protect the city after a chemical plant explosion, would not resume until 11 p.m. on Sunday, a full day later than initially planned.

Wen's unannounced visit appeared to be meant both as a morale boost to government workers who have been struggling to supply residents with water by truck in sub-freezing weather and a warning to local authorities to do all they can to help the public.

The premier visited the Harbin No. 3 Water Filtration Plant, where 300 paramilitary police were delivering tons of carbon to filter water from the Songhua River once it is declared safe to use.

"Your work now is work to protect the safety of the masses' drinking water. Thank you, everyone!" Wen told the troops outside the plant, who cheered. "Make the masses' water completely safe, and we must not allow the masses to be short of water."

Also Saturday, investigators were looking into the chemical plant explosion that the government says dumped about 100 tons of benzene into the Songhua. The government said Friday that officials found responsible would be punished.

Chinese leaders "are paying close attention to this issue and are very concerned about it," said the chief investigator, Li Yizhong, quoted by the newspaper Guangming Daily.

The government's main Xinhua News Agency announced that water service wouldn't resume until 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Sunday in order to make sure supplies are safe.

Tests on the river found benzene levels at Harbin dropped below the official limit at 6 a.m. on Saturday (2200 GMT Friday), Xinhua said. But it said another toxin, nitrobenzene, was still at 3.7 times the permitted level.

Newspapers on Friday accused local officials of reacting too slowly to the November 13 chemical plant explosion and criticized them for failing to tell the public the truth until this week.

The comments appeared to reflect a high-level effort to prod authorities in Harbin to do all they could to help the public and to warn officials elsewhere to prevent such disasters.

Environmentalists have accused the government of failing to prepare for such a disaster and of failing to react quickly enough. They have questioned the decision to allow construction of a plant handling such dangerous materials near important water supplies.

The plant was run by a subsidiary of China's biggest oil company, state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., which issued an apology this week and sent executives to help dig wells in Harbin.

On Saturday, residents of Harbin stood in line in sunny but sub-freezing weather to fill buckets and teakettles with water from trucks sent by the city government and state companies. The local government has been sending out such shipments daily, and companies with their own wells have been giving away water to their neighbors.

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