New Toxic Slick Cuts River Water Supplies In China

December 21, 2005 12:00 am Last Updated: December 21, 2005 12:00 am

BEIJING — Toxic waste from a zinc smelter, the second environmental disaster to hit China in weeks, halted water supplies from a southern river for eight hours and threatens cities downstream, state media said on Wednesday.

China is still reeling from an explosion at a chemical plant in the northeast last month which poisoned drinking water for millions and sent a toxic slick heading for neighbouring Russia.

Cadmium levels have been 10 times normal in the Shaoguan city section of the North River running across the booming southern province of Guangdong, the government-run Guangzhou Daily said on Wednesday.

“It has been confirmed that the Shaoguan smelter illegally discharged the cadmium-containing waste water during an overhaul of equipment,” the newspaper said.

A hotel receptionist in Shaoguan city, with a population of half a million, said water was turned off on Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“But it came back on afterwards,” she said by phone.

People who live along the river had been told not to drink the water, the Guangzhou Daily said.

Guangdong Television said on Tuesday that local environmental officials had ordered the smelter, China's third-largest, to stop discharging water from Sunday.

“We are working with the environmental officials, but it's hard to say who is responsible,” an official with Shenzhen Zhongjin Lingnan Non-ferrous Metal Co. Ltd., which owns the smelter, told Reuters. “There are a lot of companies near that section of the river.”

The downstream city of Yingde, with a population of 100,000, had been rushing in drinking water by road, including by fire engine, the newspaper said.

Reservoirs upstream had increased discharges to dilute the pollutants, it said, adding the cadmium density had been declining.

Further downstream, the North River will reach a city of half a million, Qingyuan, which has also launched emergency measures, before it enters the Pearl River Delta.

Cadmium, a metallic element widely used in batteries, can cause liver and kidney damage and lead to bone diseases. Compounds containing cadmium are also carcinogenic.

A chemical plant blast in China's northeastern Jilin province in November poured some 100 tonnes of toxic benzene compounds into the Songhua River and meant taps were turned off for nearly a week in the downstream city of Harbin which is home to around 9 million people.

China is building a dam to divert that slick before it runs into Russia's far east city of Khabarovsk, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news conference on Tuesday.