China’s Harbin Slammed For Toxic Spill ‘Cover-up’

Nov. 24, 2005: A view of the Songhua River in the northern Chinese city of Harbin. Photo: AFP/Peter Parks.

HONG KONG—Environmental activists, scholars, and residents have slammed authorities in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin for allegedly trying to cover up the contamination of the local water supply following a spill of highly toxic benzene into the Songhua River.

“They tried to cover it up,” He Ping, head of the Beijing-based China Environmental Protection Foundation, told RFA.

“When you have an incident of this nature where the water supply to an entire city has to be stopped and the government doesn’t tell people what’s going on, giving rise to panic and rumors,” He said. “It shows that the municipal authorities had major problems in their response to this emergency to the point of making people feel very angry,” He told Mandarin service reporter Yang Jiadai.

Toxic benzene slick

A blast at a China National Petroleum Corp plant on Nov. 13 released around 100 tons of highly toxic benzene compounds into the Songhua River, which joins the Amur to flow into the Khabarovsk region of the Russian Far East.

They tried to cover it up,

But the Harbin municipal government only issued a statement on the situation 10 days after the blast, in an apparent attempt to quell rumors of an earthquake and rising panic among the city’s 4 million residents.

Online, Chinese commentators called on the government to make clear what was happening in the city, as rumors circulated of an imminent earthquake, and people began to crowd into the airport and railway station in a desperate bid to evacuate.

Queues formed outside cash machines as people waited to get their money before leaving.

Initially, local residents were kept in the dark about an 80-km stretch of polluted water, which apparently arrived at the city far sooner than the municipal government was initially prepared to admit.

Harbin’s local water supply relies on pumped water from the Songhua River.

“All I can tell you is that the water leaving our pumping station is in keeping with national standards for drinking water,” a water company employee told RFA’s Mandarin service Nov. 23. “I can’t answer your question. We are following orders from our bosses.”

Ice turned yellow

But eyewitnesses said the river still looked polluted even after authorities claimed their monitoring team had tracked the benzene away from Harbin.

“The ice in the river is all yellow,” one Harbin resident told RFA. “We stayed by the river and watched for a while, and it was turning yellow. This means that the pollutants haven’t been flushed away.”

Nov. 22, 2005: Chinese police stand by as a truck delivers water to a neighborhood in Harbin. Photo: AFP.

Another woman said residents had no choice but to rely on local government to handle the crisis. “Of course we are concerned,” she told RFA’s Cantonese service. “But we are trying to keep our worries to a minimum...After all, it’s not in our power to do anything about it. All we can do is wait.”

Hong Kong media have shown pictures of patients in hospitals in Heilongjiang, but details of just how many people have got sick as a result of the contaminated water supply are extremely sketchy.

An employee at the Heilongjiang Provincial Hospital said hospitals had been told to prepare contingency plans for an earthquake by officials in recent meetings.

The ice in the river is all yellow,

“We have been told to prepare to treat an influx of patients,” she said. “Things seem to have calmed down about the water problem. Now many people are worried about the earthquake, so they’ve moved out of the city, either south or further north.”

Hospitals warned to expect patients

Another hospital official said: “We were told to make every possible preparation to treat patients.”

Local residents were angry and fearful in the wake of the spill, expected to cross the border into Russia on Dec. 1.

“They wouldn’t admit there was a problem and the people of Harbin paid the price,” one resident told RFA. “They are saying now on the news that the pollution had already been there for several days, so their story has changed. We are all very angry about this. They caused the damage so they should compensate the people for this,” she said.

“We won’t know for several years if our health has been affected by this. We could get cancer, leukemia and so on. Who’s going to help us then?”

While China has officially apologized to Moscow for the accident, officials have yet to provide a full chemical analysis of the pollutants according to officials in Russia, where millions of people living in cities along the river could also be affected.

Full impact yet to be assessed

Ecologists have warned that the water—and the fish in the river—could be off limits for the next year.

“The environmental cost of this impact is going to be very high indeed,” the China Environmental Protection Foundation’s He Ping said. “It’ll certainly run into hundreds of millions in lost production as a result of the loss of water supply, the alternative water sources and so on. This incident really needs to be taken as a lesson.”

We won’t know for several years if our health has been affected by this. We could get cancer, leukemia and so on. Who’s going to help us then?

Yang Dali, political science professor at the University of Chicago, agreed.

“When the pollution affected Harbin, they turned off the water supply but nobody told local residents that it was because of contamination; they told everyone it was because they had to repair the pipes.”

“This says a lot about a lack of transparency among local governments in China...There’s no culture of transparency when it comes to major disasters like this one,” Yang said.

China’s tightly controlled official media was slow to react to events, although a handful of papers called for those in charge to act responsibly.

Local authorities blamed

Beijing University media professor Jiao Guobiao said the local governments in Heilongjiang and Jilin hadn’t acted like governments.

“They have acted more like local mafiosi than the government of a modern society,” Jiao told RFA’s Cantonese service.

“I think the main reason for this is a lack of press freedom in China. If the press had real freedom, the local authorities wouldn’t be able to cover up what happened, even if they wanted to,” Jiao said.

“The reason they can succeed in putting the lid on it in today’s China is that the position of the media is all wrong.”

An employee who answered the phone at the Jiancheng Daily newspaper employee in Jilin city said her paper had no reason to report the benzene spill.

“According to my understanding, our water supply hasn’t been affected...The pollution has already moved downstream from us,” she told Mandarin service reporter Fang Yuan. “It hasn’t affected us, so why would we report it?”

A recent report in the Beijing Evening News said the Harbin government’s failure to issue a statement stemmed from a fear of frightening off potential investors and harming the tourist industry, which has its peak in winter months during the ice-sculpture festival.

The Shanghai-based No. 1 Financial Times called in an editorial for the Harbin municipal government to accept legal responsibility for the disaster.

Meanwhile, a Harbin municipal information official said the media had given full coverage to the spill. “It was all over the newspapers and the television. I’ve been saying it all along, too,” he said.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Fang Yuan and Yang Jiadai, and in Cantonese by Mei Kin-kwan and Ng Ka-man. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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