China denies mishandling river poison threat

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The Independent Online

China's government has defended its handling of a chemical plant explosion that sent toxin-laden river water coursing through a city, saying local officials were warned of the chemical threat and no one had been taken ill.

A 50-mile-long slick of toxic benzene on the Songhua river in China's north-east flowed into Harbin early yesterday after the city of 3.8 million people shut down its water system, setting off panicked buying of bottled water. The government said it would take about 40 hours for the chemical to pass the city.

The plant operator, a subsidiary of a state-owned oil company, is to blame for the explosion on 13 November, not government regulators, said the deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. "It was handled properly," the official, Zhang Lijun, said in Beijing.

The government did not publicly confirm that the Songhua had been poisoned with benzene until Wednesday, 10 days after the explosion, which killed five people. But Mr Zhang said local officials and companies were told as soon as the spill was detected and stopped using river water. "Authorities acted that day, and not one person has been sickened," he said.

The disaster has highlighted the environmental damage caused by China's swift economic growth, and brought complaints that the secretive Communist government is failing to enforce standards meant to protect the public. The government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted and many cities lack adequate drinking water.

In Russia, authorities in the border city of Khabarovsk, downstream from Harbin, have complained that they have not received enough information on the threat flowing toward them. The Songhua flows into the Heilong river, which flows into Russia, where it is called the Amur river.

Mr Zhang said Beijing has shared information and might set up a hotline with Moscow. He said the chemical would take two weeks to reach Russia.