Maximum penalty for Songhua polluter

The company responsible for the notorious 2005 benzene spill in China's Songhua River has been given the maximum fine allowed under environmental law.

Acording to state news agency, Xinhua, Jilin PetroChemical, a subsidiary of PetroChina, has been fined 1 million yuan (US$130,000) for the spill which poisoned the water of millions of people in both China and across the border into Russia.

The chemical plant explosion and subsequent leak killed eight people and acted as a catalyst for the Chinese government to publicly acknowledge that more needed to be done in the realm of environmental protection.

Jilin PetroChemical initially denied responsibility for the spill last November and the local authorities tried to keep a lid on it, covering up the extent of theproblem.

But as details emerged and it became clear that this was the worst inland spill in recent history, which saw over 100 tonnes of highly toxic benzene reach the water course (see related story).

As well as causing cancer and failure of the liver and kidneys, even limited exposure to benzenecan cause extended spells of sickness and dizziness.

Harbin, a vast city of 9 million, had its water supply switched off for almost a week to allow the spill to be washed past and had to rely on standpipes and water shipped in on a fleet of trucks.

The fine anounced this week, while symbolically significant, will have little financial impact on PetroChina, a company which made a profit of over 80 billion yuan in the first half of last year.

Neither was there any criminal action against individuals, though ten company executives had what Xinhua referred to as a demerit placed on their personal records.

The limited penalty highlights the difficulties faced by the State Environmental Protection Administration, which has stressed the need for ongoing fines rather than one-off penalties which do not encourage companies to put problems right.

Senior figures within the administration have also stressed the need for a cultural shift amongst local officials, who have been taught to promote economic growth at all costs, even if that means putting the environment at risk related story.

Sam Bond

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