Acid train a threat to environment

A train crash in Zambia and a Chinese shipwreck have led to the spilling of hundreds of tons of sulphuric acid.

China's Grand Canal has been a vital commercial waterway for almost 1,000 years

China's Grand Canal has been a vital commercial waterway for almost 1,000 years

In eastern China, the authorities, keen to show they are taking a tough line on polluters, finally finished their investigations into an incident which took place on the 900-year-old Grand Canal in July, ending with the arrest of a ship owner.

On July 30, a ship which had run aground three days earlier and had been hastily repaired was chartered to carry a cargo of 220 tons of concentrated sulphuric acid along the canal.

In the early hours of August 2, the captain of the ship reported that water was entering the cabin and by that evening the acid had begun to leak into the canal.

Apparently ignoring the captain's concerns, the ship's owner Xu Changjun ordered him to continue.

The listing ship ran aground for the second time that week on August 3, with all 220 tons of the acid leaking into the ancient canal.

Over 1,500 residents from two towns on the banks of the canal were forced to flee their homes to escape the dangerous fumes from the spill and thousands of fish were killed.

The stretch of canal was closed off to other vessels for ten hours while the environmental protection authority pumped 900 tons of liquid alkali into the river to neutralize the acid.

Xu will face criminal charges and, if convicted, heavy fines according to the authorities.

His arrest comes in the same week that the China's Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) published a report saying that, depsite the rhetoric of the country's leaders, pollution had risen significantly in the first half of 2006.

The rise was linked to the growth of the economy, said the report, with food production, paper making and chemical plants accounting for over 80% of the pollution recorded.

In Zambia this week a train spilled around 35 tons of sulphuric acid destined for the copper industry after being derailed by broken tracks last Thursday.

The train was carrying some 72 tons of the acid which was headed for the country's largest copper mine, the Indian-owned Konkola Copper Mines (KCM).

The accident occurred 50 miles north of the tourist capital Livingstone. Railway officials told the local press that unless the spill could be quickly neutralized with lime, there was a good chance that rain would wash it into a nearby canal, posing a danger to local people, livestock and wildlife.

This was the second major accident in as many weeks for KCM, which last week allowed untreated effluent from a plant in the town of Chingola to spill into a nearby river.

Sam Bond



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