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China/Russia: Beijing Apologizes For Chemical Spill

Residents of Harbin lining up for water on 26 November (AFP) Prague, 26 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- China today offered Russia apologies for the chemical spill that will soon flow into Russian rivers in eastern Siberia.

Russian authorities promised the 700,000 residents of the city of Khabarovsk that they would be told at least one week before the toxic spill reaches the city. The spill is now expected to reach Russia in about 10 days, longer than had previously been predicted.

Meanwhile, officials in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin say they expect to turn the city's water supply back on again late tomorrow. Water supplies in Harbin were cut off on 24 November as the toxic spill from an exploded chemical factory approached the city.

Russia civil defense authorities said today that the polluted water in China's Songhua River is to flow into the border river Amur on 6 or 7 December and reach Khabarovsk four days later.

An explosion on 13 November at a chemical plant located a few hundred meters from the Songhua River caused contamination of the river. Chinese authorities say 100 tones of benzene emptied into the Songhua River from which Harbin, capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and home to 9 million people, draws its drinking water.

Heilongjiang Provincial Governor Zhang Youyi, speaking earlier this week in Harbin, said the city was in a dire state.

"The contamination of the waters of the Songhua River has led to the shutdown of water supply to a city of a few million people," Zhang said. "This is a matter we must not take lightly. Officials from the various authorities must treat this matter with utmost importance and see to it that we can resume our water supply to the city."

The State Environmental Protection Administration said banks of the river contained 100 times more than normal levels of chemicals with benzene, an industrial solvent and a component of petrol.

"China Daily" quoted Zhang Lanying, director of the Environment and Resources Institute of Jilin University, as saying that people who drink water with a little benzene can suffer mouth ulcers and leukemia. Scientists in China have already warned of potentially dangerous long-term hazards as the benzene seeps into the soil near the riverbed or is ingested by fish and other marine life.

Today the situation in Harbin seems to be improving as chemicals, pouring down the river through the city, are expected to have passed through.

Harbin city officials temporarily restored water supplies to allow residents to stock up in a city where winter temperatures regularly drop below -20 Celsius. People crowded the airport and railway stations to leave the city.

Zhang Lijun, head of Sate Environmental Protection Agency, told Chinese state television that the most important task is to assess the damage and monitor the situation.

"First, we must complete our mission of monitoring the contaminated water levels and give a full report of our progress to the people of Heilongjiang Province and the Chinese people, and also to inform Russia on this issue," Zhang said. "Also, we must organize, develop, and start to assess the environmental damage of the contamination of Songhua River."

The explosion happened at a chemicals plant in neighboring Jilin Province only a few hundred meters from the Songhua River on 13 November. Five people were killed.

Local schools have been closed, about 6,000 people have been evacuated, and officials have gone from house to house warning residents not to use water from the nearby river.

The Jilin plant, Jilin PetroChemical Co., had insisted it was not responsible for the pollution, arguing all the benzene burnt up in the explosion and generated harmless carbon dioxide and water.

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