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China probe into toxic spill

Harbin (China), Nov. 25 (Reuters): The Chinese government sent a team of investigators today to the northeastern city of Harbin as residents endured a third day without tap water after a massive toxic spill contaminated the region’s main river.

“The presence of disciplinary officials in the team indicates punishments of irresponsible acts are on the way,” the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Officials in Harbin said they expected a highly toxic 80-km slick on the Songhua river to flow past the city of nine million, the capital of Heilongjiang province, by tomorrow.

An explosion 12 days ago at a petrochemical factory upstream poured an estimated 100 tonnes of benzene and other poisonous substances into the Songhua from which Harbin pumps its water.

The city’s water company turned off the taps at midnight on Tuesday, leaving residents to get by on stockpiled reserves and bottled water.

The China Youth Daily said today that shortly after the November 13 blast, environmental protection officials had released water from a reservoir into the Songhua in an attempt to dilute the toxic spill but opted not to warn the public about it.

Toxins in the river flowing through Harbin today were more than 30 times above officially acceptable levels, but experts said the poisons should be diluted downstream where the Songhua converges with other rivers.

In Russia, there were growing fears the Songhua would bring devastating pollution into Russia’s river system and threaten the Siberian city of Khabarovsk (population 1.5 million).

In the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, home to 32 million people, an explosion at a chemical plant this week forced the evacuation of 6,000 riverside residents amid fears of benzene contamination, the Southern Metropolis Daily reported.

Environmental protection officials went from house to house in Dianjiang county warning residents not to use water from a nearby river, the daily said. Two schools had suspended classes.

Back in the northeast, frantic efforts were under way to reduce the effects of the spillage, now officially categorised as a “major water pollution incident”.

Two reservoirs upstream discharged large volumes of water into the river to dilute the slick, the Harbin city government website said. City workers used picks and axes to break up ice so as to speed up the water flow and carry the pollution away.

Soldiers and paramilitary police worked at water plants to install charcoal filters that can more effectively absorb nitrobenzene, the main pollutant, it said. The local government website said Harbin had stored 7,150 tonnes of safe water and asked neighbouring cities to stop trucking in bottled water.

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