Spring to bring warmer weather woe for China's Songhua

A team of UN inspectors has warned the spring thaw could release pollutants trapped in the ice of China's Songhua River following November's huge chemical leak.

A report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) describes how its inspectors fear the melting ice, combined with faster flow from the thaw, may lead to an environmental hangover from last year's accident.

A significant amount of the nitrobenzene spilled following the explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin could be collecting in depressions in the riverbed as it is heavier than water.

When the currently slow-flowing river becomes a raging torrent in the spring, the sludge is likely to be washed clear of its winter resting places and carried downstream.

This problem will be compounded by the fact that other pollutants captured in the ice following the major spill will be released as gas and liquid as it thaws.

The UNEP report recommends an intense monitoring programme during the melt.

"Great care must be taken in the spring when the ice thaws out," it says.

"The frozen pollutants in the ice will become liquid and gas and the denser liquid that may have stayed in the bottom layer upstream may become mobile as the water flow increases."

UNEP says its team was, overall, impressed by the Chinese commitment to regular and systematic pollution monitoring, the sharing of results and other information and their cooperation with Russian experts and the UNEP team itself.

But the report did raise concerns over the lack of information available to the Chinese public in the path of the pollution following the spill and also notes the team was not allowed to investigate the site of the accident itself, nor was it permitted to include a public health expert in its makeup.

The lessons learned from the joint Chinese-UNEP investigation are likely to be used to assist the development of China's emergency response plan (see related story).

By Sam Bond



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