Huge chemical spill in China

Feature story - 24 November, 2005
A toxic chemical slick 80km long has reached a Chinese city of 3.8 million people and is threatening Russian cities further downstream.

Rapid economic growth and lax enforcement of environmental laws is leading to widespeard pollution in China.

On November 13th, an explosion at a chemical factory in China's JilinProvince released huge quantities of toxic pollution. Thirty peoplewere injured and 10,000 resisdents had to be evacuated. But later itwas revealed that the explosion had released about 100 tonnes of highlytoxic benzene into the Songhua river.

Benzene is a toxic, cancer-causing chemical which is damaging bothduring short and long-term exposure. As the slick travelled downstreamdead fish washed up on the banks and authorities in the city of Harbinshut off water supplies sourced from the river to the 3.8 millionresidents. First it was claimed it was regular maintenance, butauthorities later admitted water was shut off due to the scale of thepollution heading for the city. Levels of pollution in the river havebeen measured at 108 times the 'safe' limit according to the Chineseenvironmental watchdog. It took 9 days for the Chinese authorities toadmit that water in the area may have been contaminated by theaccident. The true extent of the pollution from the explosion and leakmay never be known.

Residents of Harbin have been forced to rely on bottled water untilthe chemical slick clears the city. But further downstream where theriver flows into Russia the city of Khabarovsk is on high alert for thearrival of the polluted water in the city.

While the acute effects of the toxic slick may dissipate with furtherdilution, the ecology of the river may take a long time to recover andif any benzene has seeped into groundwater it will cause long-termpollution.

Dirty water for 300 million

Across China water pollution is a growing problem. About 70 percent ofChina's rivers and lakes are polluted due to industrial pollution andlack of waste treatment plants. About 300 million people are forced torely on polluted water supplies.

The environmental health of China is at risk from the short-term rush for economic growth. Like wise the environmental health of the planet is at risk from the rush for short-term financial gains.