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Tap Water Flows Again in Harbin

The chemical slick has passed through, leaving criticism of China's government in its wake.

November 28, 2005|From Times Wire Services

HARBIN, China — Running water returned to this northeast city of 3.8 million people Sunday, ending a five-day shutdown blamed on a chemical spill that embarrassed the Chinese government and highlighted the nation's mounting environmental problems.

City officials announced that the level of toxic materials in the Songhua River had fallen to within safety standards as a 50-mile slick of benzene and other poisonous chemicals moved downstream.

Zhang Zuoji, the provincial governor, was shown on state television visiting a local home and taking a drink of tap water. But the government warned residents not to drink the water themselves yet. It will take time to flush sediment from the pipes, state media said, and city workers were still treating the water with disinfectants.

The city said the public should expect interruptions in water service in the days ahead, as well as color-coded bulletins about water quality.

"So far, the water is as normal as it used to be: colorless, transparent and no special smell," said Wang Yanli, 23, a waitress at a dumpling restaurant. "We're already using it for cleaning."

The Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion in Jilin, upstream from Harbin, was a political disaster for President Hu Jintao's government and cast a harsh light on the environmental costs of China's breakneck development.

Hu's government issued embarrassing apologies to both the Chinese public and Russia, where a border city downstream was bracing for the arrival of the pollution.

Environmentalists criticized the official response to the spill and questioned the decision to allow the construction of a facility handling such dangerous material near a key water source. The government has promised to investigate the spill and punish responsible officials.

State media have accused local officials of first concealing, then lying about the explosion, which killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000. In response, officials have restricted reporting on the alleged cover-up and ordered state media to focus on efforts to restore Harbin's clean water.

Thousands of Communist Party members, civil servants and soldiers were mobilized to dig wells, install a huge filtration system and truck in and distribute clean water to residents.

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