Sunday, November 27, 2005

Harbin, China

Some years ago Mrs. R. and I were invited by a Chinese colleague to visit Harbin, in China's north. Free trip. Except . . . it was in January. Harbin makes a virtue out of necessity by having a huge Ice Festival every January. Because it's cold there. Really, really cold. Average winter temperature is about -16 C. (4 degrees F.), and it can go down as low as -38 C. (-36 F.) I don't like the cold. Mrs. R. hates the cold. We didn't go.

Now Harbin (population 9.5 million) is known for something other than being the snow and ice culture capital of the world. On November 13 a state-owned chemical plant exploded 200 kilometers up the Songhua River, in Jilin, releasing a huge slick of benzene into the river, the source of Harbin's drinking water supply. Benzene is a known human carcinogen, causing a variety of cancers of the blood forming organs (leukemia, lymphoma, multiple myeloma) and can also cause a complete shutdown of the bone marrow (aplastic anemia). Local officials expect the slick to pass through this weekend, having passed the inlet of the drinking water system two days ago. Residents have been warned to stay away from the river. The city water supply is being shut down for four days.
A mood of distrust and paranoia spread through Harbin, sharpened by the local government’s decision to turn off water supplies for fear of an environmental catastrophe.

Trains leaving the city have already sold out until the weekend. All 42 flights from the city’s airport were also full yesterday.

Officials at the railway station and airport said the scenes resembled the crush during the Chinese New Year holiday, when travellers overload the public transport system in order to return home to their families.

The growing unease was fuelled by the clumsy handling of the crisis by the city’s authorities, which at first said the water supply was being closed only for maintenance purposes. The lack of clear information spawned rumours of an imminent earthquake, which triggered panic buying of food and bottled water.

“I am fleeing,” said Pang Shijun, a 50-year-old man among the crowds at the central railway station. He said his wife had already left the night before to go to the nearby city of Jixi. “I just do not trust the government to provide true information on this.”


After a series of contradictory statements by the city and PetroChina, the overseas-listed energy giant which runs the plant where the accident occurred, Beijing’s environmental watchdog confirmed the Songhua river had been contaminated.

The State Environment Protection Agency said an 80km stretch of the river had been polluted by benzene, a carcinogen used in the manufacture of plastics, detergents, pesticides and other chemicals. Some sections of the river contained benzene levels more than a 100 times higher than national safety levels.

The accident occurred at a plant adjacent to the river near the city of Jilin. The polluted portion of the river is expected to arrive in Harbin this morning and take about 40 hours to pass by. A city spokesman, quoted by the official Xinhua news agency, said 15 hospitals had been put on standby to deal with cases of poisoning. Schools have been closed until further notice. (Financial Times)
While the rest of the world waits with bated breath for bird flu to fly out of China's infested 5 billion poultry, the Russians wait for the toxic benzene slick to make its way to its eastern city of Khabarovsk, the second largest city in the region. It takes its drinking water from the Amur River, of which the Songhua is a tributary.

So once again China stands out as a world class environmental polluter, a leader in horrific and preventable industrial accidents and coal mine disasters, and a nest of clumsy cover-up artists. Tom Friedman and others believe China is the economic power of the future. Maybe. But any country that operates like this has built-in weaknesses that catch up with it sooner or later. Whether it will be sooner or later is hard to say.