Toxic leak threatens Chinese city's water

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The Independent Online

A Chinese city of 3.8 million people closed schools and shut down its water system after a chemical plant explosion polluted a river with toxic benzene.

The announcement of the shutdown in Harbin in China's frigid north-east set off panic-buying of bottled water, milk and soft drinks that left supermarket shelves bare.

The water system was shut down at midnight on Tuesday and probably will stay out of service for four days, said an official of its Municipal Water Supply Group. Extra supplies are being brought in by lorries.

An explosion on 13 November at a chemical plant in the nearby city of Jilin left the Songhua River, Harbin's main water source, polluted with benzene, a toxic, flammable liquid, the government said.

"The provincial government is sending in bottled drinking water from other cities," said a spokesman named only as Chen. "It must be very inconvenient for the public - taking showers or flushing toilets. But this is an emergency and it will only last a few days."

Schools cancelled classes until 30 November "for fear that catering and sanitation cannot be secured," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

There is no sign that benzene got into the city water system, said an employee of the Harbin Environmental Bureau who would give only his surname, Wang.

Water service was reinstated for about 12 hours today after experts concluded the benzene wouldn't reach the city until tomorrow afternoon, the city government said on its website.

There were no reports of anyone injured by drinking the polluted water, but 15 hospitals were ordered to be ready to treat possible poisoning cases, said a man who answered the phone in the press office of the city government. He refused to give his name.

Harbin is one of the coldest places in China, with overnight temperatures this week of -12 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit). It is best known abroad for its winter "ice lantern" festival, when giant slabs of ice cut from the Songhua are used to construct copies of famous buildings and artworks in public parks.

Companies that supply steam heat to buildings have been ordered to ensure they have adequate water supplies from wells in order to ensure that heat isn't interrupted, Xinhua reported.

The explosion in Jilin killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others. It was blamed on human error in a tower that processed benzene.

The disaster highlighted the precarious state of China's water supplies.

The country's 1.3 billion people and the factories and farms of its booming economy compete for scarce supplies, while the government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted.

Due to its vast population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person.

In Harbin, the government is using wells to supply hospitals and some residential areas, according to news reports. Retailers were warned not to overcharge for drinking water.

The shutdown affects the city of Harbin but not its suburbs, Chen said. The city has 3.8 million people, while the surrounding area has about 5 million more.

Photos in newspapers and on news websites showed people in packed supermarkets pushing carts overflowing with cases of bottled water and soft drinks.