Accident Contaminates Major Chinese City's Water Supply

In northeastern China, a city of nearly 4 million people has temporarily lost its water supply. Environmental officials say an industrial accident polluted a river that normally serves as the water source for the city, Harbin. Anthony Kuhn has the details.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In northeastern China, a city of near four million people has temporarily lost its water supply. China's Environmental Protection Agency says a recent industrial accident seriously polluted a river, a river which normally serves as the water source for the city of Harbin. The city is downstream of the accident, and it's waiting for the toxic water to flow past. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is following the news from Beijing.

And, Anthony, what was the accident in question?

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

The accident happened on November 13th at a petrochemical plant belonging to the PetroChina corporation, a big state-owned corporation, and it apparently sent a lot of benzene into the Songhua River, and that's a major river in northeastern China. We understand from Chinese state media reports that the reported stretch of the river is about 50 miles long, and the meat of it is supposed to hit Harbin early tomorrow morning. Harbin is a city with about four million in its central urban areas and about nine million total if you include the outer outlying areas. And it's traditionally had a substantial Russian population.

SIEGEL: And if I understand this, this 50-mile-long stretch of polluted river--it's taken 10 days to get from the accident to where it is right now?

KUHN: That's right. It's taken about 10 days to cover the more than 200 miles or so between the plant and Harbin. And apparently during that time, it has been somewhat diluted. Right after the explosion, the benzene levels were a hundred times the national safety standard. Now they are probably down at about less than 30 times more than that.

SIEGEL: So Harbin authorities have turned off the water, obviously. What else are they doing to help people cope without running water?

KUHN: Well, they just turned off the water a few hours ago, before which they were instructing citizens to stock up, to fill as many tanks and pails and jerricans as they could. Now they're shipping in thousands of tons of bottled water from the surrounding provinces. They're also using their reserves from wells, from the underground water table. They've put 15 hospitals on standby to take in any potential contamination victims, although we haven't seen any reports of casualties yet.

SIEGEL: What kind of reports do you hear about how people are handling this situation at Harbin?

KUHN: There was an initial panic buying of water. Stores were just cleared out of bottled water and even milk and beverages. That seems to have subsided. But people still don't know when they're going to get their water supply back.

SIEGEL: How did the Chinese authorities do in the candor and clarity department here when it came to telling the people about this problem?

KUHN: Well, Robert, it appears that they executed an about-face. At one point they were saying that the talk of pollution in the river was all rumors and that only routine maintenance was being done on the water system. Later it was the provincial and the national Environmental Protection Agency authorities who said, in fact, benzene had polluted the Songhua River, posing a threat to people's health and safety. This illustrates the problem that the national government has in getting accurate information out of local officials, who are often very worried about losing their jobs over incidents like this. And it also shows how the increasing environmental degradation in China can threaten social stability--in this case, when people can panic at the thought of having no water for days.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn speaking to us from Beijing.

Thank you, Anthony.

KUHN: Thank you, Robert.

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