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Harbin water supply to be unsafe at least another day
Updated: 2005-11-24 19:52

China said the drinking-water supply to 3 million people in Harbin city will be unsafe for at least another day after a benzene plant blast this week that may cause ecological damage along the Songhua River as far as Russia.

As of noon today, nitrobenzene in the river that supplies the northeastern city was 10 times the level deemed safe and is dissipating as it moves downstream, Zhang Lijun, vice minister of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, said. PetroChina Co., the nation's biggest oil company, will be held responsible for the spill, Zhang said.

``Nitrobenzene is very harmful, accumulating in wildlife and impacting the ecological system,'' Zhang told reporters in Beijing. ``We haven't done any thorough estimation of the cost.''

China, which has notched up growth of 9.5 percent a year for the last decade, has been struggling to check the loss of life related to the country's production of raw materials such as coal and petrochemicals. PetroChina's former chairman Ma Fucai quit in May last year to take responsibility for a December 2003 blast that killed 243 people and poisoned more than 10,000.

Contaminated river water from a chemical plant explosion on Nov. 13 forced authorities to halt the city's water supply for four days starting yesterday. Water from the Songhua River, Harbin's main source, was found to contain as much as 100 times the maximum allowable level of chemicals near the site of the blast, 220 miles (350 kilometers) upstream, the agency said on its Web site yesterday.

Workers Killed

The explosion, which killed five workers, happened at the Jilin Petrochemical Co., a unit of PetroChina Co., the nation's biggest oil company, on Nov. 13. The plant produces benzene, used to make chemical products such as detergents, and aniline, which is used in making rubber.

Hydropower plants along the river have been ordered to increase water flow to further reduce the concentration of pollutants, Zhang said.

Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province, is the first large city downstream from the chemical plant, which is in neighboring Jilin province.

China informed Russia of the spill two days ago, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said today.

The Songhua River flows across the border into Russia. Russia's environmental protection agency said yesterday it was worried the pollution could affect drinking water supplies in its Khabarovsk region, the China Daily reported today.

``China is very much aware this disaster may bring harm to Russia,'' Liu told reporters at a regular briefing in Beijing. ``Depending upon the level of pollution in the river, both sides need to take appropriate measures. This is an unfortunate accident but we need to work together.''

The head of China's environmental protection agency met with Russia's ambassador to China today to discuss the matter, Zhang said. Once the spill passes Harbin, China will share its follow- up actions and information with Russia, he said.

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