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China's Cover Up of Chemical Accident Unveiled

Government had concealed knowledge of chemical plant explosion that caused major benzene spill in the Songhua River

By Li Dan
Epoch Times Staff
Nov 26, 2005

Harbin residents collecting water (AFP/Getty Images)

Water polluted by the chemical benzene in the Songhua River arrived at Harbin city's upstream water retrieval point, Sifangtai, at 5:00am on November 24. The polluted water will have passed the Harbin metropolitan area on the morning of November 26. After that, it will join the Hulan River, Tangwang River and Mudajiang River. Hopefully, with the increased water volume, dilution, sedimentation, adsorption, and other physical and chemical reactions, the concentration of nitrobenzene in the water could be reduced. Millions are now without water.

On November 13, an explosion took place at the Jilin Petroleum Benzene Production Plant, causing the Songhua River pollution incident. However, the Heilongjiang Province government withheld knowledge of the incident from the general media until November 23.

Two Different Notices in One Day Cause Chaos

On November 21, the Harbin City government issued two water cut-off notices but citing two totally different reasons.

The first Notice (Notice No. 25) said, in order to ensure residential and industrial water usage safety in the metropolitan area, the city government has decided to do maintenance of the metropolitan area water supply system, and the water supply will be temporarily cut-off for four days.

The second Notice (Notice No. 26) said Jilin Petroleum Benzene Production Plant, owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), had an explosion on November 13, but the Songhua River, Harbin Section, is normal. The government expected the polluted water from upstream to reach Harbin in a short time. On November 22, at 8pm, Harbin city will cut off its metropolitan area water supply for four days.

The Harbin city government also announced that schools would be reopened on November 30. Because the true situation was not told, the entire city went into a panic. Residents used any possible containers at home to store water, and many stores ran out of supplies of bottled and drinking water. Rumors regarding the cause of the water cut-off spread everywhere. Some said it was caused by an earthquake, others said it was poisoned. In an attempt to leave the city, many discovered that airline tickets were sold out, and the airport and railway systems were congested with people.

One-Hundred Tons of Benzene Discharged into Songhua River; Benzene Concentrations up to 108 Times Acceptable Level

At 1:45pm on November 13 at the Jilin Petroleum Benzene Production Plant (owned by the China National Petroleum Corporation, or CNPC), a newly installed aniline production unit exploded. Within 5 hours, 15 explosions, 6 of which were large, occurred. The chemical blaze was not put out until 4:00am the next morning. Six persons died in the incident as reported by Chinese media.

After the explosion, Zhou Haifeng, Deputy Party Secretary of the Jilin Petroleum Benzene Production Plant and other plant leaders claimed in a press conference the night of November 13 that real time monitoring showed the explosion did not introduce any toxic pollution into the atmosphere.

On November 23, Zhang Lijun, State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Deputy Minister, told the media that because of the explosions, the Songhua River was highly polluted. According to experts, around 100 tons of benzene were discharged into the Songhua River. The benzene concentration in the river water is 108 times higher than the state approved safety level. But, because of factors such as the water flow, velocity and the riverbed, SEPA could not obtain accurate readings.

Beijing Evening quoted one local media worker who said that the water pollution was a well-known secret, but none of the local media reported it. Harbin media had conducted an interview at the time of the incident, but were told that the Songhua River had not been polluted.

Benzene Pollution Has Huge Environmental Impact, Russia Asks for Compensation

During his interview with Oriental Daily, Dr. Man Chi Sum, Hong Kong Green Power Chief Executive Officer, said that both benzene and nitrobenzene could be harmful to people, even if the pollution was diluted by water. The toxic chemical could deposit on the riverbed, and when fish eat the chemical and retain the pollutant, the pollution would enter into the food chain and create a series of ecological problems.

The benzene contamination of the Songhua River also shocked Russia. According to a report on Russian News Net, the Russian Parliament has demanded environmental compensation from Beijing because the Sunghua River runs into the Heilongjiang River, which goes through Russian territory. The Chinese government formally informed Russia that the Heilongjiang River basin was possibly polluted by virulent chemical substances on November 22, while the explosion happened earlier on November 13.

Blocking Media Reports

After the incident was made public, Beijing media questioned why the Jilin Provincial government announced that the Songhua River was not polluted after the explosion and why no media in Jilin Province reported the incident. Only now, has the Environmental Protection Bureau of Heilongjiang Province reported that it detected the pollutants.

A reporter at Heilongjiang Legal News, Mr. Yang, told an Epoch Times reporter that the reason the water supply was cut-off was because the contamination of the water was caused by the explosion and not maintenance. He also stated that they had an internal notice from higher authorities and that the news should not be reported "to avoid public chaos."

Beijing News reported on November 24 that while Jilin Province does not use Songhua River water for its drinking water, Harbin city relies on the Songhua River for 90 percent of its drinking water. Thus, the Jilin Province government, by delaying the announcement, ignored the safety of people downstream in Heilongjiang Province and Khabarovsk, Russia.

Concealment of Disaster Causes Public Outcry

Ten days after the explosion, the authorities admitted for the first time that the accident had caused serious contamination of the Songhua River.

The government officials intended to conceal the facts, which caused a public outcry in mainland China, especially the victims, who are the residents of Harbin. Mr. Wang from Harbin City said that the government had never cared about the livelihood of the common person. Whether the problem can be solved in four days, or some pathological changes found in their bodies from drinking the polluted water later, is a matter for the future.

Ms. Zhao said, "Anyway, the victims are always the common people. The officials can always protect themselves. They don't view common people's lives as human lives." A web user expressed his indignation online, "The most hateful thing is that the officials bought water before they announced the situation. They bought dozens and dozens of barrels of water, while the common people waited in line at the water station for a whole day, but didn't even get a drop of water."

An article in Hong Kong's Ming Pao News stated that when dealing with something major such as this water crisis, the officials are cautious and conceal the facts. They ignore the public's right of disclosure and neglect the public's livelihood and health. The government publicized the news only after they were no longer able to conceal it. This method of dealing with the problem is the same as that in dealing with SARS and the bird flu epidemic.

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