Toxic slick heads for Russia

Feature story - December 2, 2005
Eighteen days after an explosion at a chemical factory in Jilin Provence launched a huge 80 kilometer (50 mile) slick of cancer-causing benzene down the Songhua River, and nine days after the Chinese government admitted to suppressing the news, activists from Greenpeace Russia are in place and awaiting the slick to slide across the border.

The river Amur where Chinese-Russian border runs through the centre of the river. The toxic slick of is slowly approaching large Russian cities via the frozen river.

Millions of Chinese people who rely on the Songhua for their drinkingwater have had to rely on bottled water and emergency supplies instead.Our activists are keeping a close eye on Russia's Emergency Ministry,Emercom, to make sure that sampling and public information are accurateand that no expense is spared in protecting human health and theenvironment.

Neither Russia nor China enjoy much of a reputation for openness whenit comes to industrial disasters. The recent description of the initialcover-up by Zhang Zuoji, Governor of Heilonggjiang Provence as a"benevolent lie" has done little to help.

But will it be any different in the Russian Federation? Greenpeace'sman on the ground, Alexi, says: "On paper and in their reports they arepretty much set up to meet the slick. However, we in the area say thatthey are under-staffed. The amount of activated carbon -- which can beused to filter benzene from the water -- is insufficient. Not tomention that the way they take samples -- using a helicopter and abucket on a rope -- raises a lot of questions."

"There are still many unknown facts, like exactly how much benzene andother toxic substances really spilled into the Songhau; or how thefreezing temperatures and ice-cover on the rivers will effect theslick; or whether or not it will still be a slick or a more dispersedplume.  But Emercom and local scientists, probably also to avoidpanic, are saying that the slick will not reach Russia at all."

Both Emercom and some local scientists believe, or hope, that thelarger part of the slick will turn into the Chinese side of the river,but not all of it, so they are preparing some safety measures.

The city of Khabarovsk on the Amur has a population of some 800,000people. Other large river cities include Amursk (about 70,000 people)and Komsomolsk-on-Amur (up to 300,000 people). There are also manyvillages and small towns along the river. To a various extent anddepending on the response of the Russian authorities and influence oficing the slick may affect some 1,200,000 or so people.

But the myths and rumours are already starting to build around thenearly invisible benzene's ghostly trip down river. At the moment it isbelieved to be passing the Chinese city of Jiamusi, a city about twothirds of the way to the Russian border from Harbin, the first Chinesecity to have its water supply cut.

According to Alexi, there is a dam near Khabarovsk which dampens waterflow.  So in order to channel the polluted water away from theKhabarovsk water supply inlets, the authorities are considering blowing up the 400-million rouble (12-million euro) dam.

Already, on November 25th the Khabarovsk authorities turned off the tapwater because it was rumoured a day earlier they found benzene in Amur.Later the authorities tried to calm the population down explaining theturn-off was for technical reasons only.

Rumours also abound that another pollutant heptyl had been found in thewater. "This news was made hotter by the Emercom spokesman who saidthat this information was closed" says Alexi. "Oleg Mitvol, from theGovernment, who was there at the time demonstratively drank some tapwater to show that it is safe. But, even that backfired, people startedsaying that he had eaten lots of adsorbents beforehand and that he didthis because he had gotten a phone call from Moscow telling him to stopany panic even at the price of his own health."

So added to certain danger of benzene we can add the legacy of years ofmisinformation and no information, a heady cocktail of Governmentincompetence and intransigence.

We'll do our best to bear witness and continue to apply pressure forfull monitoring over the next few months and well into the spring thaw,but also to promote honesty and independence in the battle to provide awary public with information that they can have confidence in.

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