Chinese Residents Slam Lack of Transparency Over Toxic Water Scare

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Citizens carry bottled water out of a supermarket in Lanzhou, April 11, 2014.
Citizens carry bottled water out of a supermarket in Lanzhou, April 11, 2014.

Residents of the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou have hit out at local authorities for a lack of transparency over environmental pollution after a drinking water crisis sent thousands of people to supermarkets in a panic-stricken bid to buy bottled mineral water.

Stores in Lanzhou were packed with jostling shoppers desperate to buy the last cases of bottled mineral and distilled water on Friday after the authorities announced that levels of the carcinogen benzene, a cancer causing substance, had been detected in the city's tap water at 20 times the legal limit.

Local authorities believe production of industrial chemicals was possibly behind the dangerously high benzene level.

Local people said they had received a notice on Friday warning them that the tap water would be unusable for 24 hours, but residents contacted by RFA after that period had ended said they were still suspicious of official statements.

"The government warned us not to drink the tap water before [Saturday evening]," one Lanzhou resident surnamed Chen said.

"They are saying it's within legal limits, but it's all very confused, and you could say that people's patience is wearing very thin," he said.

Chen described "hectic" scenes on Friday with the panic buying of bottled water in stores and supermarkets across the city.

He hit out at the government for ignoring the problem for weeks before issuing the warning, however.

"This happened in March, but ... the government has been evading the issue," Chen said. "The Lanzhou Morning News has reported it, and after the local media reported it, they started detaining 'rumor-mongers'. That's the sort of rotten government we have."

"They avoid our complaints, and then the government comes out and says that everything we were saying was true," he said.

Skin problems reported

The water supply was turned off entirely in one district, and local residents reported skin problems after washing their faces in the piped water supply.

"Xigu was the worst-hit area in Lanzhou in this disaster," said a second city resident who asked for anonymity.

"Our relatives came here from Xigu district, saying that younger people were getting blisters on their skin after using the tap water to wash their faces," he said.

"They are demanding that the government offer blood tests, but there has been no clear response to their requests yet."

A statement from the Lanzhou municipal government said the contaminated pipes had been shut down, and that treatment of the water was under way by Friday.

"Lanzhou has shut down the contaminated water supply pipe and deployed activated carbon to absorb the benzene," the statement said.

Lack of transparency

Lanzhou-based environmental activist Yu Nan said a lack of official transparency meant that overseeing the actions of polluting industries was well-nigh impossible.

"On the face of it, there is some official regulation, but in reality, we can't tell whether it is really being regulated or not," Yu said. "A lot of the information we get isn't clear and accurate, so it's hard to tell where the problems are originating."

He said many had been left without clean water at the weekend, in a city with a nominal population of 3.6 million, not including migrants from other parts of China.

"There are 5 million people in this city, so the government is hardly likely to hand out so much water," Yu said. "Water is the most basic requirement for life. If that can't be guaranteed, then what can?"

He said Lanzhou was already plagued by a plethora of severe pollution problems.

"The pollution from the factories is extremely serious, and the air makes you choke at times," Yu said. "There is a disgusting stench coming from the river, while the residential areas and the industrial zones are all mixed up together."

Joint venture

Lanzhou's tap water is supplied by a joint venture between the Lanzhou city government and France Veolia Environnement, which holds a 45 percent stake in the Lanzhou Veolia Water Co.

Tests revealed levels of 200 micrograms of benzene per liter of water, the government said, compared with the national safety standard of 10 micrograms per liter.

Veolia said the benzene pollution was caused by industrial contamination.

"Initial investigation showed the high levels of benzene were caused by industrial contamination at one of the two culverts that transfer raw water from a sedimentation plant to the water treatment plant," the company said in a statement.

According to the government's official website, preliminary inspection showed the benzene came from chemical plants, although no companies were named.

The city's environmental protection bureau is investigating the pollution further, it said, while Veolia said the polluted culverts were no longer in operation.

Harbin contamination

Benzene is a known carcinogen used in the manufacture of paints, thinners and other chemical raw materials which can also cause acute poisoning if absorbed in high concentrations, leading to coma and even death.

On Nov. 13, 2005, an explosion at the Jilin Petroleum and Chemical Co. plant dumped tons of benzene and other chemicals into the Songhua River, contaminating the water supply of the nearby city of Harbin.

Plant managers at first denied that the blast had occurred. It then took more than a week for officials in China's Heilongjiang province to warn Harbin residents that their water supply would be shut off.

Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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