Russia prepares for benzene battering as Harbin turns off taps

A major explosion at a petro-chemicals plant in China has led authorities to shut off the water to Harbin, a city in the north east province of Heilongkiang, and home to approximately 9 million people.

News agency Xinhua reported that China’s State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) has now confirmed that the Songhua River in northeast China suffered a major water pollution incident as the result of the explosion in Jilin City, upriver from Harbin, earlier this month.

Various pollutants including benzene spread into the river. Officials in Jilin managed to block entry of the chemicals eventually and then discharged water from a reservoir to dilute the pollutants.

The river was found to be polluted soon after the explosion on November 13th but was only confirmed on the 23rd, some ten days later. Originally, an official statement said that the water would be shut off for routine repairs. This has now been retracted.

The water in Harbin has been shut off for four days as the contaminants pass through.

The blast released around 100 tonnes of benzene according to official estimates and soon after levels were recorded in the river at over 100 times the safe limit.

Officials from the Chinese Environmental Protection Administration say that has now been diluted to 30 times the safe limit but the slick has now spread out and is some 50 miles long.

At high levels of exposure benzene can prove fatal and causes leukaemia, anaemia and kidney and liver failure.

Even at lower doses it is exceptionally toxic and can lead to spells of dizziness and sickness.

The Chinese authorities have laid the blame for the disaster squarely at the door of the Jilin PetroChemical Company which ran the plant that exploded.

The company has denied responsibility, though it has apologised to the residents of Harbin, and there are suggestions it may be prosecuted for criminal responsibility.

There are also unconfirmed reports that other factories are using the disaster as an excuse to offload their own contaminated waste water while treatment and testing centres are focused on the benzene.

While the impact on human health is likely to be significant there has been time to prepare and put safety plans into place.

The natural environment does not have such a luxury and is likely to bear the brunt of the damage.

Indeed, official sources said the first sign of the pollution travelling down the river was the swathe of dead fish left in its wake.

The Songhua River carries on to feed the Amur River in Russia, which is one of the main water sources for the city of Khabarovsk, and authorities there are said to be monitoring the situation.

Water for drinking and cooking is being brought into Harbin by road, and nearby wells are under quality inspection and could be used as an alternative source while the shortage continues.

Shops were reported to have run out of bottled water and most soft drinks soon after the mains water was switched off.

Water resources are already scarce in northern China, and nationwide supplies are roughly a quarter of the average worldwide.

Many of the Harbin’s residents have abandoned their homes and headed to rural relatives where they will sit out the scare.

The WWF has called the disaster a potential tragedy for conservation efforts in the region, which include protection programmes for the endangered Siberian tiger and Asian snow leopard.

“The region’s precious natural resources must be protected as a result of this spill,” said Dr Li Lifeng, director of WWF China’s freshwater programme.

“We need to work together to ensure a healthy ecosystem and ecological security.”

According to the NGO some 70% of China’s major rivers are heavily polluted with untreated sewage and industrial waste.

The country’s rapid development and rising population have led to slope erosion, sedimentation, intensive land reclamation and industrialisation of river banks.

The only sure way to stop a repeat of the Jilin disaster is to ensure tighter controls on chemical production, says the WWF.

“We need much stronger national and international laws to ensure that hazardous and highly toxic substances, like those released in the explosion, are either not produced or are severely restricted,” said Clif Curtis, director of WWF’s global toxics programme.

“The global community needs to take much more concerted action to regulate industrial chemicals more effectively.

“Such actions must guarantee that basic safety information of chemicals is systematically provided, and that rigorous procedures and safeguards are in place.”

By David Hopkins & Sam Bond

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