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China’s Familiar Pattern in Handling The Water Pollution Crisis Caused by a Chemical Plant Explosion

China tries to turn the chemical plant explosion into a non-event,
but the massive impact of the spill forces the issue to the headlines.

On November 13, an explosion occurred in the Benzene Production Plant of the Jilin Petroleum Company, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation.The blast killed five workers, injured more than 70 people, forced 10,000 to flee their homes, and spewed about 100 tons of cancer-causing benzene into the nearby Songhua River, which is only a few hundred yards away from the plant.

The dangerous 50-mile-long slick silently floated downriver toward many farms and residential areas. In its path were Harbin, a metropolitan city 165 miles downstream with a population of 4 million, and the Russian city of Khabarovsk, having more than 500,000 residents. Instead of warning them of the oncoming danger, government officials were busy covering things up.

The following timeline tells the tale of the crisis:

• November 13 — An explosion at the petrochemical plant in Jilin City

• November 14 — China Daily reported, "the local government has kept monitoring the air and water quality in the area," with no hint that this event had resulted in a severe toxic release.

• November 16 — Xinhua News Agency reported with this headline, "Chemical Plant Blasts Releases No Toxic Substances."

• November 19 — It took six days before Jilin informed provincial authorities about the danger to Harbin.

• November 21 — It took two more days before the city of Harbin issued its first notice, telling the public that the water supply would be cut off temporarily for approximately four days for "routine maintenance and repair."

• November 22 — China Daily reported, "Water stoppage in Harbin sparks panic buying," vaguely mentioning that water could have been contaminated after the blast.

• November 22 — Jilin government said that the local environmental bureau found that the water quality was barely affected by the blast.

• November 22 — The Harbin city government issued its second notice, mentioning the November 13 explosion for the first time. The notice stated that there was nothing abnormal with the quality of water in the Songhua River, but in order to "ensure safety," the water supply would be temporarily cut off for approximately four days.{mospagebreak}

• November 22 — The Harbin city government issued its third notice, announcing the official cut off of the water supply as a result of the blast.

• November 23 — A Xinhua report for the first time confirmed that the explosion had polluted the river. The article made several interesting statements. It quoted an official with the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) by saying that, right after the explosion, "Jilin quickly blocked entry of the pollutants into the river and discharged water from a reservoir to dilute pollutants in the river," suggesting that the Jilin government knew exactly what was going on.

• November 23 — The authorities reported that 100 tons of benzene emptied into the Songhua River.

• November 24 — China Newsweek reported that Governor Zhang Zuoji of Heilongjiang Province told 400 officials in a closed meeting that the city of Harbin lied about the water-supply shutdown because it was "awaiting instructions from senior Party leaders" to disclose the spill and didn’t want to contradict Jilin official reports.

• November 25 — The New York Times reported, "China Blames Oil Company for Benzene Spill in River."

• November 26 — China apologized to Russia, where the pollution was expected to arrive in a few days.

• November 27 — Xinhua News Agency reported that Harbin’s water supply resumed. Provincial Governor Zhang Zuoji put on a public show by taking the first drink.

• December 2 — Xie Zhenhua, the director of SEPA, resigned.

• December 6 — Wang Wei, the Deputy Mayor in charge of Jilin City’s safety and environmental protection, is reported to have committed suicide at home, one day before the Central Government’s investigation team arrived in Jilin.

The current crisis is temporarily over with the death of a deputy mayor and sacking of three executives of the petroleum company. However, after being widely criticized for an initial cover-up of the SARS virus in 2003 and amidst fresh concerns that the communist government has concealed bird flu outbreaks in several provinces for many months this year, the same pattern just keeps repeating. Such a consistent way of handling crises makes one wonder what will be the next.