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Chinese city to turn taps back on after toxic spill
Updated: 2005-11-27 15:15

China's northeastern city of Harbin prepared to turn the taps back on on Sunday after a toxic spill into its river left millions without water for five days and an 80-km (50-mile) slick still flowing beyond.

Residents queue to receive water in Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province, November 25, 2005. [Reuters]
Water supplies in Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, were due to come back on around 1500 GMT. The local government, quoting provincial and city environmental protection officials, said on its Web site the water would be "safe for drinking."

Tests by environmental protection officials at 8 a.m. (0000 GMT) showed the level of nitro-benzene in the water had dropped to 0.0031 milligrams per litre, meeting national standards, the Web site said.

It was 30 times above official safety limits last Friday morning but water was discharged from nearby reservoirs to dilute the toxic spill and 1,000 soldiers raced to ensure water would be drinkable by installing charcoal filters at water plants.

An explosion at a chemical plant in nearby Jilin province about two weeks ago poured an estimated 100 tonnes of cancer-causing benzene compounds into the Songhua river from which the city of nine million pumps its water.

The Harbin crisis has raised wider questions about the costs of China's breakneck economic boom. Around 70 percent of its rivers are contaminated, and the cabinet recently described the country's environmental situation as "grim".

In Lengshuijiang city in the southern province of Hunan, water supplies were suspended for 12 hours last Friday after fertiliser maker Jinxin Chemical Co. Ltd. accidentally spilled more than 100 cubic metres of ammonia nitrate into the Zijiang river, the Beijing Youth Daily said on Sunday.

The city, which has a population of 100,000, resumed water supplies after tests showed pollutants in the water did not exceed acceptable levels, the newspaper said, adding that the spill would not have any impact on cities downstream.


Environmentalists have complained China is not sharing enough information to protect Russia's rivers and its residents, including 1.5 million in the Siberian city of Khabarovsk, which draws water from the Amur River, fed by the Songhua.

China's Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing on Saturday expressed regret to Russia's ambassador over the incident and briefed him on the situation.

The river slick had passed Harbin by early Sunday morning, Lin Qiang, spokesman for the Heilongjiang provincial Environmental Protection Bureau, told the Xinhua news agency.

But it could still affect hundreds of thousands more people in China alone as it heads downstream.

The Jilin chemical plant's parent, China National Petroleum Corp., has apologised for the pollution in the Songhua river.

But one Chinese newspaper accused officials of trying to hush up the disaster, and even Xinhua called on officials to be more frank.

Premier Wen Jiabao visited Harbin on Saturday, promised aid and pledged openness about the incident.

He also urged university students to stay calm and stopped at a supermarket to check the prices of bottled water. Store shelves were cleared of water by panicking residents last week but calm has returned to the city.

After water supplies are resumed, 612,000 tonnes will be provided to residents daily in the first stage, the semi-official China News Service said, adding that the government would drill 65 underground wells to provide an additional 150,000 tonnes daily.

Hospitals, schools, homes, party and government institutions will be given priority access to water, but bath houses and cars washes will remain closed, state television said.

Two residents have lodged court claims for damages in Harbin courts, a rare step in China.

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