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25 November 2005

officials wait 6 days to tell Harbin about benzene river spill

Dead fish lie in a section of the Songhua River in Jilin, northeast China's Jilin province. The government of Harbin, neighbouring Heilongjiang province, admitted that fears of water contamination following a chemical plant blast in Jinlin on November 13 in the Songhua River, which supplies the city, were behind its four-day water supply cut, state media reported. Picture taken 22 November. REUTERS/CHINA NEWSPHOTO

International Herald Tribune (Paris)
Friday 25 November 2005

China tried to keep
benzene spill secret

By Jim Yardley, The New York Times

HARBIN, China -- The government tried for days to keep secret the threat posed to the nearly four million people of this city by a chemical explosion and benzene leak that has made the water supply unusable, Chinese news accounts revealed Friday.

The reports, including some from the official Xinhua news agency, suggested that officials here and in Jilin Province, where the disaster occurred 380 kilometers, or 235 miles, up the Songhua River, lied or told only part of the story until they had no choice but to admit the truth.

The explosion at the chemical plant occurred on November 13, but factory officials announced only that the accident posed no threat of air pollution. They denied that chemicals had spilled into the river, the main source of water for Harbin and other communities.

A Shanghai newspaper, the News Morning Post, reported that government officials in Jilin told their downstream neighbors in Heilongjiang Province, home of Harbin, that there had been no chemical spill. But Jilin officials finally told their peers in Heilongjiang on November 19 that there was a problem.

The China Youth Daily reported that environmental officials in Jilin -- instead of telling the public -- had tried to dilute the spill with reservoir water.

By Monday, officials in Harbin were preparing to shut down the water supply, but they feared news of the chemical spill would start a panic, the News Morning Post reported. Instead, they announced that they had to cut off the water to do maintenance work on the mains. Rumors then erupted that the government had detected signs of an earthquake.

Enough people panicked that the officials then had to confirm that the explosion had released benzene into the river. But the damage was done.

On Friday, a front-page headline in the Modern Evening Times here stated: "There Will Not Be an Earthquake in Harbin."

"They were trying to lie and get by," said Qi Guangzhong, 64, as he walked along the Songhua River on Friday. "The government wanted to hide this."

The earthquake rumors were just one of the consequences of a government response that was secretive and misleading at a time when China is eager to prove to the world that it is a candid international partner on other important issues, such as containing bird flu.

In the Chinese media and on the Internet, angry people seethed as officials in Jilin Province offered apologies. One citizen has already sued the state-owned chemical company responsible for the spill, state media reported.

China's leaders have tried hard to regain international trust after they tried to conceal the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2002. Beijing was then condemned around the world as SARS spread. But it has earned praise from some international health officials for its response to the bird flu problem.

Even so, Hu Shuli, editor of the country's most influential business magazine, Caijing, wrote an editorial that criticized propaganda officials for censoring how the media is allowed to cover bird-flu outbreaks. Since that editorial, coverage of the disease has expanded.

Some people here are critical of the State Environmental Protection Agency, which said Thursday that it would seek criminal penalties against those responsible for the spill.

"It happened on the 13th," said Qi, the man walking along the river on Friday, pointing out that 11 days had passed before the environmental agency spoke out. "Where have they been?"

Qi said residents were immediately suspicious when Harbin officials announced that the water would be stopped for maintenance work on the mains.

He said the timing was too strange: Why would the city do routine work when the sub-zero temperatures of winter are about to begin?

He said his wife and children left three days ago for the countryside; he remained to protect their home.

- 30 -


Blogger kaikaiisagirl said...

I attend college in Harbin, and I hate my government even more after this event.
By covering the truth at first, they not only lose confidence from the people, but also caused more confusion(people in harbin do know from the news that the factory exploded on 13th, our media reported that, so we know it'll contaminate our water).
Now we already don't trut them(we never really trusted them anyway) and they say the water will resume from the evening tomorrow, we don't think the water will be safe. Because such a spill of benzene will affect the water for a very long time! It can't be dealt with in only 4 days.

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Hi kaikai ... i think u hold the record for Farthest Away Commenter to Vleeptron ... or maybe you're tied with the nice guy from Kuala Lumpur ...

I only know about Harbin from old history stuff ... in the 1930s and 1940s (ahem, b4 my time, ahem) Harbin used to pop up in history books and magazine articles a lot. But this is the first time I've heard news from Harbin in decades. I'm sorry it's such bad news.

The Soviet Union started to fall apart after it lost the confidence of its people over things like this -- the nuclear accident in Chernobyl was the biggest and worst incident, and how the government tried to keep it a secret, and lied about it. They also first told the big officials of the Party first, secretly, so they could evacuate their families, but didn't tell most of the people until a few days after that.

Are you really a student in Harbin now? What do you study? Please tell us more about Harbin, the things you like about it, anything you want to describe. Here is what Vleeptron knows about modern Harbin: 0

I get dead links trying to find your blog, but I found WangShimin's blog, and you're all over it, you're always hanging with WangShimin. Welcome to Vleeptron, come back often! Answer the PizzaQuestions, win Pizza!

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Okay I am playing Sherlock Holmes here, and Sherlock Holmes thinks you are not in Harbin now, but in Singapore. Let Sherlock know if he's right. Hsieh-hsieh.

Blogger kaikaiisagirl said...

I don't know Wang Shimin, o probably posted comments in his/her blog long time ago.

Blogger kaikaiisagirl said...

Harbin's an old industrial city, it has many state owned industrial factories. A lot of them are not doing well after China's capitalist reform since the 1980s.
Harbin is famous for its annual ice sculpture exhibit, Harbin beer, and many Russian architects and churches.
Since 1/10 of the population were Russian before sino-russian relation breaks up. and its border with korea, russia, and it's the ancestry home of the manchu, so the harbin people are usually taller than other chinese. Of course there are many harbin people who moved from the south only one or two generations ago, they're shorter. Now I find the people in nearby small towns around Harbin taller than the Harbin people, because the immigrants from the south usually settle in Harbin, not its nearby towns.
Harbin people are bold and direct, and easy to get along.


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