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Residents sue China leak plant

Harbin (China), Nov. 26 (Reuters): Residents of a Chinese city who have endured four days without water because of a toxic spill are suing the chemical plant that caused it, highlighting growing demands for environmental protection and transparency in China.

Two residents lodged claim for damages in Harbin courts against Jilin PetroChemical yesterday, and a lawyer leading the litigation, Hu Fengbin, says he expects more to follow.

Ding Ning is claiming damages of 15 yuan ($1.86) for purchases of bottled water and demanding a published apology after an explosion at Jilin’s plant on November 13 poured about 100 tonnes of benzene and other poisonous substances into the Songhua river. Li Yanbin is claiming 11,000 yuan damages from Jilin.

Harbin, a city of nine million people, pumps its water from the river. The chemical slick arrived in the city on Thursday.

By this morning, the level of benzene in the river at Harbin had fallen to 3.7 times officially accepted levels, compared to 30 times yesterday morning. The 80 km slick was due to have passed the city by early tomorrow.

“Whoever brought risk to everyone’s life should take the blame. I hope to use the law to exercise citizens’s rights ' to send a warning to the perpetrators ' so we can avoid a repeat of such problems,” Ding told Xinhua news agency.

Ding operates a small restaurant in Harbin and said business was badly hit by the water scare. The legal challenges are unusual in a country where citizens rarely sue, and, even more rarely, win cases against powerful state-backed entities.

Jilin PetroChemical is owned by PetroChina, the country’s biggest oil corporation.

Ten days after the spill, the Harbin government turned off the city’s water and residents belatedly learned the spill threatened their health. But many Chinese believe the Jilin authorities sought to cover up the pollution and Harbin also first explained the shutdown as routine maintenance.

In her claim, Li said Jilin PetroChemical “throughout the year expels waste water with high volumes of pollutants into the upper reaches of the Songhua river”.

A Harbin government spokesman said the government also was calculating the economic cost of the water shutdown and clean-up.

Wen promise

China Premier Wen Jiabao promised aid to the thirsty northeastern city and pledged openness about the incident on behalf of the communist party accused at home and abroad of covering up the truth of disasters, disease outbreaks and social problems.

Soldiers and workers raced to ensure water would be drinkable when it starts flowing late tomorrow.

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