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Toxic Flow Leaves Chinese City Waiting for Water

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Toxic Flow Leaves Chinese City Waiting for Water

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Toxic Flow Leaves Chinese City Waiting for Water

Toxic Flow Leaves Chinese City Waiting for Water

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A 50-mile-long slick of toxic chemicals flowing through a river in northeast China has left the 9 million residents of Harbin scrambling for water. Harbin, a major industrial city, shut off its municipal water system days ago, and water supplies are now tight.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

A 50-mile-long slick of toxic chemicals is flowing down a river in northeast China. The slick passed through the major Chinese city of Harbin yesterday, which days earlier had shut down its water system. The slick was created by an explosion a couple of weeks ago at a petrochemical plant on the Songhua River, but it wasn't until the middle of this week that the Chinese government confirmed the river had been poisoned. This chemical disaster highlights how much China's environment is threatened by its booming economy and the fact that it doesn't enforce public safety standards.

Louise Lim is the BBC China correspondent, and she joins me from Harbin.

And what is the situation in that city today?

Ms. LOUISE LIM (BBC): Well, this is the third day that the inhabitants of Harbin have been without water. Their main water supply was from the Songhua River, which has been so badly polluted, and so the authorities simply have turned off their water supply. We are beginning to see water trucks circulating around the city, stopping in neighborhoods, and allowing people to stock up their supplies. But people are beginning to worry that they might not have enough water stockpiled to get by.

MONTAGNE: Are there other dangers caused by this slick to Harbin's residents?

Ms. LIM: Benzine is the main substance, which is in this toxic slick, and this is a highly toxic substance, which causes cancer, and the latest figures that there were a hundred tons of pollutant that were dumped into the river by this chemical blast more than two weeks ago, now that's about 10 tanker-loads of toxic chemicals floating down the river. So there are very serious health concerns, and one thing that people are worried about is the fact that it's very cold here. It is winter, and the river is beginning to freeze over, and people are starting to wonder, is there benzine in the ice, and what could that mean for them later on? And they're simply not getting any answers from the officials on that front.

MONTAGNE: Do you know why the Chinese government waited so long to confirm this spill?

Ms. LIM: Unfortunately, this seems to follow a pattern that we've seen in the past in China. Initially, local authorities don't admit to anything. Often, they fear that it could have economic implications for them, and then they scramble when these rumors go around. In this case, they made excuses. They said they were turning the water supplies off for routine maintenance, and then only after these rumors circulated of toxic water did they then come back and say, `Well, actually, there is some truth to that.' So that makes people here very uneasy indeed, and it makes them wonder, well, what else is going on that we're not being told about?

MONTAGNE: Well, what are authorities doing about this slick?

Ms. LIM: Their primary strategy has been to try to flush it down the river faster, so they've opened up several reservoirs in order to try to get it moving faster, and they've been saying that this slick is diluting in toxicity as it moves down the river. They're also changing the water filters, to put in carbon filters, which absorb pollutants, and they're digging wells here in the city of Harbin, just in case the water supplies can't be turned on in the very near future. So there are actions going on on those fronts.

MONTAGNE: And this slick continues, though, to flow down the river to where?

Ms. LIM: Well, further down, this river turns into the Amur River, which goes into Russia, and it's actually the main water supply for the city of Kabarovsk, so Russian officials have already expressed their concern about what will happen when that slick hits them. Chinese officials say they are trying to dilute it further, but they're also telling Russia to prepare, and they're warning that that toxic slick is due to cross the border in about two weeks' time.

MONTAGNE: The BBC's Louise Lim in Harbin, China. Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. LIM: Thank you.

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