The Water Crisis in Harbin
... that is, assuming that there was a real natural crisis as opposed to a piece of man-made bungling of monumental proportions.
EastSouthWestNorth reported on the morning of November 22, 2005:
(Dongbei Net) What is known is that the water supply system will be shut down for approximately four days as of noon, November 22. This has caused panic buying of bottled water at supermarkets. What happened here?
(1) The official explanation was that it was routine maintenance
(2) (Dongbei Net) Previous to this, beginning around noon, November 20, there was a rumor that an earthquake has been predicted for Harbin. This has caused people to start hoarding up on food and water and pitching tents outside to sleep at night. But what has this got to do with the water supply system?
(3) (First Financial Daily) Previous to this, there was an explosion at a petroleum plant in Jilin, and since Harbin is downstream from Jilin, its water has been contaminated. But what about all the other people who live along the river? There are cities in between Jilin and Harbin!
(4) (Boxun) An unidentified person from the water works department said that a water quality inspector found out that there was a large-scale, systematic attempt to poison the water (specificially, it was cyanide). But how are they going to get the poison out of the system in four days?
An email then arrived around noon on November 22, and an edited version appears below:
Hey, I am an American student studying in Harbin here, and it is CHAOS. No one knows what is going on at all. The government came on tv last night and said from today at 12pm noon for the next 4 days AT LEAST (we have heard up to 10, and any Chinese will tell you to wait at least more days). Around yesterday afternoon at about 1:30, people all across the city started rushing to buy water. It was sold out city wide by around 8pm,. We went to Carrefour, Metro, Wall Mart, and so on. No one had any left.
There was water trucked in last night but you have to wait in lines for hours. We have heard mostly that this is because the water here is supplied from the Song Hua River, which is also in the same watershed as Jilin, and because they had an explosion last week, the water in Harbin is now superpolluted with Benzenye. But who knows?
Our campus first told us yesterday that they were "cleaning out the water tanks because they were dirty. But now they have retracted the story and said that it is because the water is polluted, but will not tell us what kind of pollutant it is.
Also about the earthquake, there are rumors that for the next 5 days there is a possible earthquake in the vicinity of Harbin from 5-6.5 on the Richter scale. I saw this posted on the HIT BBS last night by an employee from the Heilongjiang Earthquake Bureau, and apparently it has been confirmed. I know from being here this summer there was an eartquake in Daqing around a 4.5 or something, and we felt it here in Harbin. The whole city is on edge here. Businesses are closed. No one knows if we can cook food, and the government is not telling us anything. We have been in contact with the American embassy and they sent 4 FSO's up here this morning, and should be here by tonight. They also sent someone from the EPA who works at the Beijing Embassy to head up here, but when we first called them last night at 8pm, we were their first report.
There are lots of rumors flying around in Harbin right now. It is just a chaotic situation that no one seems to have a handle on. For example, one of my professors who is an administrator at the university, said that all of the higher officials at the University wanted to issue a one-week vacation because they had no way to provide clean cooked food or sanitary conditions, but that the city government would not permit it.
Another message from the American Citizen Services for Shenyang (covering the Northeast, including Harbin) was also forwarded here:
According to the authorities in Harbin, the city water supply has been polluted by an explosion that occurred at a chemical plant in Jilin Province. Contaminated water entered the Harbin city water supply through the Songhua River. In order to clear dangerous chemicals from the city's water system, the water supply will be shut off from the evening of November 22 until November 26. It is still unclear as to what chemicals are involved, but official sources mention high levels of benzene. In the meantime, authorities recommend that people do not consume tap water in the city of Harbin. The Consulate will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as needed.
Below is a brief description of the effects of benzene:
Eating or drinking high levels of benzene can cause:
* Vomiting or irritation of the stomach.
* Dizziness, sleepiness, or convulsions.
* Rapid heart rate, coma, and death.
* Direct contact with the skin may cause redness and sores.
* It can also damage your eyes.
Animal studies indicate that benzene may damage genes and may affect the ability to have healthy children. Benzene affects the circulatory system by increasing heart rate. Benzene affects the digestive system by causing vomiting or irritation of the stomach. Benzene also harms the immune system. This increases chances of infection and reduces the body's ability to fight off diseases.
The following is the translation of some forum posts at a Harbin BBS (via Boxun) .
A little after 10pm last night, my mom called to tell me not to sleep too deeply at night. She said that my second aunt had called to say that there will be an earthquake after 1am. When I heard it, I felt that it was people gossiping because they don't have anything better to do. So I tried to reason with her so that she won't continue to propagate this, because she is spreading rumors. When she heard that, she began to have doubt and said, "Then you take care of yourself."
She hung up the phone and then called back a little while later again. She told me to take care and wear some extra clothes when I go to sleep. Because she called my uncle immediately after she called me to tell him to watch for the earthquake. It turns out that his family had already head the news, and that the earthquake was not for tonight. It was due at midnight on November 24th.
The more important thing is that my cousin who works at the provincial hospital got another news of news: the Jilin petrochemical explosion has polluted the Songhua river and the water supply will have to stopped! I was dubious about the earthquake because there are rarely any earthquakes at Harbin and besides the prediction cannot be so precise. But the Jilin explosion was real, and Harbin is situated downriver on the Songhua and could therefore be affected. So I promised my mother that I would store some water and I told her to drink bottled instead of tap water.
So it was a chaotic night, and then I went to work as usual in the morning. At after 10am, my colleague received a telephone call from his friend at the municipal public works department to go home to save water because the water supply is going to be stop. When I heard that, I laughed: "Looks like this society of ours has one trick after another."
At the time, our office director said nothing and continued to immerse his head in work. So I and my colleague went over and joked with him: "Why doesn't the director go home to save water?" But surprisingly the director smiled and said that his wife's unit had posted a notice to tell the workers to save water, and so everything is ready at home by now. The director's wife works in a provincial government office and if their unit issued a notice, then this is not as simple as a rumor. So my colleague grabbed some money and went downstairs to buy water at ther supermarket. He returned emptyhanded in less than 20 minutes. He said, it was a grand sight! The water is all gone. Only some beer is left. I went to the Harbin Daily website, but there is no news.
In the afternoon, the office BBS had more posts about the water stoppage and earthquake. Someone even posted photographs of people buying water at the supermarket, including live reports of the situation. The unit reserve center posted a notice after 4pm to say that water will be stopped for a few days to clean out the tanks. Then someone posted the notice from the Harbin municipal government about the water stoppage, and the reason was also that they need to clean out the tanks and it would take four days.
I was at work today. I called a call from a friend who said that the water supply will be shut down. I laughed. So what if the water is stopped. It can't be for too long, so there is no need to make a big deal out of this.
I was in the street at noon. I saw people rushing about carrying bottles and contains of bottle around. I laughed. That's cute. Rumors are so scary. They went out so fast that everybody believes it. Can the government possibly let the people go without water?
I went home at night. I saw the district government notice. I was stunned. Water will be stopped for four days. I rushed home. There is not a single drop coming out of the drain. I drove to a Carrefour. Damn! It looked like they had just been looted. Not only was there no water, but every drink related to water and milk were all gone. Not even bread! Frightening! I can only make fun of myself. Do I trust this kind of government?
Are the reasons given for the water stoppage plausible?
1. It is 10 degrees below zero. There is no reason to try to repair the pipes in the cold.
2. Hot water is being used to provide heating. Four days of water stoppage means that the citizens will have to live in iceboxes. No reasonable person would do that. The government would not make this decision unless something big was happening.
3. The water stoppage was supposed to begin at noon on November 22, 2005. But there were already large-scale stoppages across Harbin on November 21. This was abnormal.
4. Pipe maintenance is usually done one section at a time. To bring the whole city down for four days is going to cost inestimable economic losses. This is irregular.
We ask the government to tell us the truth.
At ChineseNewsNet, there is an article that collects various stories about how the problems arising from the water stoppage are being tackled by multiple parties, such as water bottlers who ramp up their production. Here, I am struck by this particular report for Zhejiang's Nongshan Mountain Spring Corporation which came through Zhejiang Online. According to a spokesperson, "Before Harbin issued the public notice for the water stoppage, Nongshan Mountain Spring Corporation had already received the related information and began its preparations several days ago." What? The water bottlers of Zhejiang knew days ahead!!!
Here is the email update at 6pm on November 22, 2005.
Nothing new here at all. Water is beijing trucked into the city today at high volume, so finding bottled water is not a problem, but you have to wait in long lines. Al ot of restaurants and other private business such as my gym here in town have shut down for a few days because there is no way to provide water to clean dishes, maintain pools, etc. Apparantley, according to my Chinese roommates and our campus administration, the food at our cafeteria is safe to eat because one of a few "reasons" I have been told, is that "it comes from underground" or "they use bottled water." On the Heilongjiang TV station, they also mentioned that this was how the city's hospitals and fire services were operating as well. Well, whatever they say, I am sticking to my stockpile of canned soup and vegetables that I bought at METRO.
Apparently, the rumors started going around Sunday that the water was going to stop. One of my professors on Monday told me that she heard the day before that the water was going to stop, and another professor of mine, whose husband works for the city government and drives around in his official Audi, seemed to know about it on Saturday. So right now, my Chinese friends are a bit angry over why an earlier warning was not put out (in the words of my Chinese roommate, "Fuck them!"). The same professor also told me that the water supply in Jilin has been shut off for 4 days already. I haven't heard ANYTHING about this (it seems plausible), and what about all of the other cities along the SongHua River's water supply? This can't be just a Harbin issue, and now people are saying after 4 days or so the polluted water will just "float away." But where will it float to,? Does benzene simply float away? Another issue that a lot of people are worried about is just when exactly did the polluted water arrive in Harbin. It is quite possible that it was already here when they shut off the water, in that case the pipes in the city are contaminated as well, leaving the chance of a long-term contamination.
Other than the supermarkets (which are still packed with people struggling to get themselves water), there is not a general sense of confusion on the streets anymore. But from listening to coversations on the street, it is sure the talk of the town, and it seems that most Chinese people are worried about sanitatary conditions and their heating. Our campus uses a closed water circuit heating system, so I have been told that it should be online during the stoppage. Chinese people seem to by trying to project an image of calm to me, but as soon as their friends are around them, they begin to argue over the latest rumors. It also appears that people here seem to be genuinely scared about the earthquake. My Chinese friends' parents drove out to a village last night to sleep and have still not come back, and one of my professors told me to take used glass bottles of water, fill them up with water (with what water I should have asked) and put them on the ground so that if an eartquake comes, you can wake up quickly and run out of the building.
There is really nothing that can be done about the situation here, but why did the government tell everyone yesterday that they were cleaning out the pipes, and then retracted their story? And now it seems they knew about this even earlier, so this just highlights the mismanagement up here in Harbin.
(Source: Microsoft Encarta)
Question: Why is there no issue with the water quality of the Songhua river anywhere between Jilin and Harbin, or any points further beyond?
Partial answer: (Footnote to the photograph at Nanfang Daily) According to China News, Songyuan City (near the location marked Fuyu on the map above) in Jilin resumed the supply of water on November 23 around 1pm after a stoppage of seven days.
(The Wall Street Journal) Chinese city shuts off water after accident. By Jason Dean. November 23, 2005.
A major Chinese city shut off water to residents to protect the population from possible contamination by a chemical factory accident.
Officials in Harbin, a provincial capital in northeast China, began the water shutdown yesterday, and said the extraordinary measure probably would last at least four days. Word of the move, which leaked out before the announcement, sparked panic-buying of bottled water by the city's 3.1 million urban residents.
Harbin's plight highlights the enormous environmental challenges afflicting China amid galloping economic growth. The accident that Harbin officials fear may have contaminated their water supply occurred earlier this month, after several explosions shook a chemical plant owned by a unit of PetroChina Co., one of China's biggest energy companies. PetroChina, majority owned by the Chinese government and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, had suggested in a statement after the incident that environmental damage had been contained.
The company couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.
"Water pollution is a big problem in China," said Ma Jun, an environmental expert and author of the book "China's Water Crisis." "We need to do more work on the risk management of our heavy industry and heavy chemical industry." Mr. Ma said that while he hadn't studied the details of the Harbin incident, it appeared to mark the first time a city of its size had taken such a drastic measure.
The Harbin episode also illustrates the increasing difficulty that Chinese officials face in trying to manage the flow of bad news, as technology facilitates the spread of information. Harbin's government had initially issued a notice Monday about the shutdown that merely said the move was to guarantee the safety of the water supply, without explaining why. But by that time, word of the decision had already spread on the Internet, and the vague notice sparked angry Web-site postings calling for greater clarity.
The Harbin government then issued a second notice sometime later, which local journalists said wasn't widely distributed until yesterday, acknowledging that the shutdown was triggered by a series of explosions at the chemical factory on Nov. 13. The explosions occurred some 200 kilometers away in Jilin city, near the Songhua River, which flows downstream to Harbin and supplies its water. The plant, owned by PetroChina unit Jilin Petrochemical Co., produces aniline, a toxic chemical used in products as diverse as varnish and explosives.
PetroChina had issued a statement Nov. 15 acknowledging the explosion, which it said had killed five people and injured 23. The statement said the fire resulting from the explosion "was extinguished after all the substances on the scene were burnt out." It added that "following an environment survey, it was noted that the air quality in the area of the accident complies with the relevant standard." The statement made no mention of possible water contamination. It said investigations were continuing into the reason behind the explosions.
The Harbin government, in its second, more detailed notice, said that no pollution has yet been registered in the Songhua near the city, but that contamination was possible in the near future. The government didn't say whether it had detected contamination further upstream.
An official in the city's Communist Party office said the plan was to close off the Harbin water supply from the river until any contaminated waters had flowed farther downstream. The official said that if the water quality improves after four days, "we will resume the supply. If not, the order will last one or two more days." In a new notice posted yesterday, the government urged people to make preparations such as buying bottled water, and said the city would try to tap underground wells. It also ordered industries that use large amounts of water to shut down.
It wasn't clear how the contamination would affect other people who live along the Songhua, which stretches nearly 2,000 kilometers across the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, home to Harbin.
(China News via NetEase) November 23, 2005.
According to Eastern Morning News, the Harbin municipal government said yesterday that the reason of the water stoppage was related to the explosion at the Jilin petrochemical plant. But PetroChina and the National Ministry of Environmental Protection both said that they "cannot come to this conclusion as yet."
According to the news officer of PetroChina, Hua Jianguo, he understands that no environmental testing unit has contacted PetroChina so far about the explosion having polluted Songhua River. Therefore, he does not believe that the Harbin water stoppage had anything to do with pollution due to the explosion.
(6Park) November 23, 2005.
Photographs of the Songhua River near Jilin -- dead fish washing up the banks.
(China News) November 23, 2005.
According to the leader of the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), the serious pollution of the Songhua River due to the PetroChina explosion in Jilin is now decreasing in severity even though the pollution area stretches out to 80 kilometers. The person said that the governments of Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces have initiated emergency responses to guarantee safe drinking water for the public.
He said that after the explosion at the Jilin PetroChina plant, testing showed that benzene and other pollutants entered into Songhua River No. 2. Benzene is harmful to the human body. After receiving the report, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) took it seriously and sent experts to the scene in Heilongjiang to assist the local governments. Testing was conducted every hour as they closely monitored changes in the environmental quality in Songhua River.
He said that after the pollution occurred, the relevant departments of Jilin sealed up the release outlets. They increased the throughout at the Dafeng Hydroelectricity Station in order to dilute the pollutants. They took care to protect the sources of drinking water. They organized teams of environmental protection, hydraulic engineering and chemical engineering experts to particpate in pollution control. The Heilongjiang provincial treasury has allocated 10 million yuan for the emergency response to this event.
From 16:30 on November 13, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) began testing the water around the Jilin PetroChemcial Plant No. 10 and the water going out of Jilin at the Beiqi section, past the Songhua Bridge, the section at the Songhua Jiangjiu section, and elsewhere. After many tests, the pollution was found to be decreasing. But the right bank was still 100 times more than the standard while the left bank was 10 times as much. Benzene and nitrobenzene were found at the Songhua Jiangjiu section, of which benzol was 108 times the standard but the nitrobenzene was under the standard. As the water moved, the pollutants were carried downstream. At 16:00 on November 20, they reached the border between Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces when the levels of benzene began to exceed the standard and reached a high of 29.1 times. The polluted zone was about 80 kilometers long and took about 40 hours to pass. At the moment, the polluted zone has moved past the border point.
He said that the analysis of the data showed that the degree of pollution in the river water is decreasing. At the moment, no benzene and nitrobenzene have been found at the Sifangtai, the point which is sixteen kilometers upstream from Harbin and where the city draws its drinking water. Based upon the water speed, the polluted zone should reach Sifangtai in the evening of November 23 and then finally passed through the Harbin city section in the afternoon of November 25. Once past Harbin, Songhua River will be joined by the Fulan river, Tangwang river, Mudanjiang and other larger tributaries. The increased water volume will dilute the pollutants.
(Financial Times) Thousands flee Chinese danger city. By Geoff Dyer in Harbin and Richard McGregor in Beijing. November 23, 2005.
Thousands of residents of Harbin on Wednesday night jammed its railway station and booked out all available flights as a deadly 80km toxic slick made its way down the Songhua river, threatening to poison the north-eastern Chinese city’s water supplies.
A mood of distrust and paranoia was spreading through the industrial city of 9m people, sharpened by the local government’s decision to turn off water supplies for four days 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.”
(Nanfang Weekend) Eyewitnessing the Water Shortage in Harbin. By Xu Bin (徐彬). November 24, 2005.
On the afternoon of November 21, the Harbin municipal government issued two versions of the "water stoppage public notice."
Nangang District Xuanqing Sub-district resident Li Daqing heard the first public notice while driving in his car on the way home. "It was around 1 o'clock. The radio said that water supply network will be totally inspected and maintained in the city. So the water may be stopped for four days, and everybody should prepare to store water," he recalled.
As he happened to be thirsty at the time and he was just going past an Antartica Distributor Market, he bought twelve bottles of Nanbowen spring water for a total of 6 yuan and threw them back into the car trunk. For the beverage business, this is the off season. At the Antartica Distributor Market, various kinds of spring water, distilled water, carbonated soft drinks and colas are stacked up like small mountains.
Li Daqing did not give it another thought and headed towards home. But ten minutes later, a never-before-seen scene of horror appeared: "There were cars everywhere heading towards the Antartica Market. Everywhere, there were people porting water. We were stuck."
He took out his mobile phone and called a friend who works at a television station. "What's up?" The other part said, "Everyone on earth already knows, but you still don't?" His friend said that the benzene storage towers at the Jilin petrochemical factory exploded and has polluted the waters of Songhua River. "The water contains poison."
At that moment, this was still just a rumor.
On November 13, the two benzene storage towers at the Jilin Petrochemical Company next to the Songhua River exploded. The citizens of Harbin were worried whether the water would be polluted. Their city lies 400 kilometers downstream from the scene of the incident. They have three sources of water, of which the first and second come from the Songhua River and account for 91% of the total water supply of the city.
On the night of November 20, there came two rumors about "water stoppage due to poison" and "water stoppage due to earthquake." On that night, a small number of people had begun to store water and food.
On the afternoon of November 20, Li Daqing's wife heard at the office that "the water quality is bad and should not be consumed" and told him about it. But Li Daqing did not regard it seriously.
Then the scene appeared before him. He decided that he had better go and buy water. He wanted to turn around to go back to the Antartica Market, but the cars were jammed and there was no way to move. Finally, he went through a small lane. He visited several stores, but was told that water had been sold out. At the Hoyodo Supermarket, the mineral and distilled water sold out first, then the Sprite and the milk, then all kinds of ready-made note, bread, instant noodles, sausages, large bread ...
"Just as I was reaching for the last load of bread, one woman had quicker hands and grabbed it," said Li Daqing. In that atmosphere, people ran around like crazy. They would automatically, "take the money out and buy anything that they see."
His wife called home and asked their mother to go down to the street to buys some buns and twisted rolls from the small stall. When his wife got home, mom was still in a queue and there were more than 40 people ahead.
At 6pm on November 21, the Harbin municipal government issued the second water stoppage notice. The notice confirmed that the reason for the water stoppage was "due to the possible pollution of the water coming from upstream."
The buying spree lasted until about 2pm on November 22 until people began to see 8-meter-long, 20-ton water trucks arriving in the city continuously. When dawn broke, people learned that the first 20-ton water truck had started out at 10pm last night. At the time when the reporter turned in his report, the water scare has subsided. The city has returned to normal and people have calmed down.
(Nanfang Daily) The Citizens Create "Water World" To Deal with the Water Stoppage. By He Xun and Xu Lin. November 24, 2005.
On the first day of the water stoppage, Li Fei of Harbin City Daoli Dsitrict had finished the preparations ... like all Harbin citizens, all the contains in Li Fei's home have been used to store water. The verandah, the bathroom and the kitchen were full of pots, bowls and pots that contain water, making Li Fei's apartment look like a family "water wrold." Because she was concerned that the water stored over the past two days may not be enough, Li Fei continues to go to the supermarket every day to bring back boxes of mineral water. Last night, Li Fei took out a bottle of Wahaha from the cardboard box behind the door to give to her mother to cook with. Then she tore the opening further back and told the reporter to help himself. Li Fei hopes that this means that the stored drinking water in the home will be enough to last through the peak period of pollution.
But Li Fei also said that the water storage effort will continue, because "who knows if they can really restore water after four days?" And "even if water is restored, will there be residues of pollutants?" Although there are still various worries and yet-to-answered doubts, Li Fei's family continue a normal life. The difference is that Li Fei has been wearing a radio instead of a MP3 around her neck, as she seeks the latest news about the pollution in Songhua River.
(Southern Metropolis Daily) November 24, 2005.
The Jilin benzene factory is located in the industrial zone in Jilin City Longtan District. There are about one hundred large and small chemical industrial factories. Yesterday afternoon, Director Chen of the Jilin City Environmental Protection Bureau was interviewed by our reporter. He said that the industrial waste water is discharged into the Songhua River from the side of the Bingjiang North Road: "From the Longtan Police Station down (that is, in the direction of Harbin), the water is definitely poulluted. In the other direction (that is, towards Changbei Mountain), the water of Songhua River is safe."
Around noon of November 23, the reproter met Wang Mingshan, who had just finished inspecting the conditions on the Songhua River bank. Wang sued to be a cadre at a Longtan District enterprise. "The waste water discharge outlet underneath the Qingyuan bridge lets out purple-reddish dirty water into the Songhua River." The discharge outlet is about two hundred meters away from the Longtan police station. According to Wang Mingshan, this discharge outlet is used by several chemical plants belonging to PetroChina, including the benzene factory that exploded. There is even a discharge outlet at the bottom of the river.
Yesterday afternoon, the reporter found the discharge outlet underneath the Qingyuan bridge. From a huge pipe, the waste water fell down like a waterfall into the Songhua River. Looking through the white foam of the river water, the reporter can clearly see that the soil on the bottom of the river is reddish. According to Longtan environment protection volunteers association president Zhang Xianwen, this may possibly be caused by chemicals such as benzene and phenol. Zhang used to be the security chief for Jilin North Company in charge of environmental protection, production safety and fire protection.
(Nanfang Daily) November 24, 2005.
With respect to the doubts about whether the water supply will be safe, Heilongjiang province governor Zhang Zuo said that the people should believe that the government will act responsibly: "In four days' time, I will be the first one to drink the water."
(Southern Metropolis Daily) November 24, 2005.
Yesterday afternoon, Jilin province deputy governor/Jilin City party secretary Jiao Zhengzhong met with Heilongjiang province deputy governor Sun Liguo. On behalf of the Jilin province party and government, Jiao expressed deep apologies to Heilongjiang and Harbin.
Upon information, the relevant Jilin departments had sent the "relevant documents" to the Jilin provincial government office and environmental protection bureau on November 18, five days after the Jilin explosion. The documents contain information about the possible pollution of the Songhua River.
China Petroleum and Natural Gas Corporation (PetroChina) vice-present and Daqing Petroleum Management Bureau director Zeng Yukang said yesterday that he represented his corporation to apologize to the people of Harbin and other cities along the river as well as to the Heilongjiang province party and government for the pollution. PetroChina will do everything within its power to address the water supply problem. PetroChina has sent sixty large water trucks with capacity between 10 to 20 tons to help Harbin transport water. PetroChina has also provided its engineers and technicians to drill more wells in Harbin at various universities and heating supply companies.
Previously, according to First Economic Daily on Novembe 21, a Jilin PetroChina representative insisted that the explosion produced only carbon dioxide and water, and cannot possibly contaminate the water. Besidres, Jilin PetroChina has its own waste water treament, and water that don't meet the standards will not be discharged into Songhua River.
(China News) November 24, 2005.
According to CCTV, the benzene-polluted materials have arrived in the Harbin sector as of midnight. By 3am, the level of benzene has exceeded the acceptable standard. Currently, all the water intake points in Harbin are shut down.
According to Heilongjiang Water Works Department director Xiao You, the reservoirs upstream have increased their discharges. Yesterday, the Songhua river surface was noticeably wider than the day before and the speed of water flow was also noticeably faster. To avoid citizens drinking the water by mistake, Harbin has spent more workers to patrol the banks and also asked the media to warn citizens not to drink from the Songhua river.
The water quality control inspectors are now running their tests every 30 minutes. According to the workres, the water does not smell any different, and there is no change in the color.
(ChineseNewsNet) November 24, 2005.
According to a source inside the Heilongjiang provincial government, the Harbin government held a meeting on the day before they had to stop supplying water. The discussion concerned whether it was necessary to disclose the reason for the stoppage. A number of people recommended not disclosing the reason because they were afraid of scaring people and creating arguments. Therefore, the first public notice said that the water stoppage was due to the need to maintain the water pipe system. They never imagined that this would actually lead to a scare instead.
On the evening of November 21, the city government held another emergency meeting and reached consensus around midnight. They would now tell the real reason for the water shortage to the public. The provincial and city government personnel and the community resideents that they are satisfied with the performance of the government after they gave the explanation. "The performance of the Harbin city government over the past couple of days saved them a lot of points."
(Life Daily via Netease) November 24, 2005.
Yesterday was the first day of the water stoppage in Harbin. "All the big pots and small bowls, the bottles and the cans, are filled with water. Because we are prepared, my life has been totally unaffected, "said 71-year-old female Harbin resident Zhang Lizhen who smiled at the reporter.
Zhang Lizhen and husband She Yuqing live in block of the police school in Daoli district, Harbin. They are frugal and hardworking. To deal with the temporary water stoppage, the two have cultivated the habit of saving water. When the notice to save water was received on the morning of November 22, the two made use of every water containing device in their home. On November 23, the reporter saw that although the home was small, it was deftly organized. In the living room, bathroom and kitchen were large pots, small pots, big pans and small dishes all filled with water. Even the used beverage bottles were filled with water.
At 8am, the two made a pot of confee. The water used to rinse the rise was put aside into an empty pot. The salty vegetable was served with the congee and it made for a delicious breakfast. The two used two bowls and a plate, and those were put aside.
At 11am, Zhang used the water left over from rinsing the rice in the morning to wash the vegetables. After that, the water was put into another pot. After lunch, the pot with the water that had been used twice already was used to rinse the dishes. Then that water was brought into the bathroom to be used for flushing.
At 2pm, Zhang had to go to the hospital for a physical checkup while her husband stayed home and watched television. A sudden news flash caught his attention: on November 23, Harbin would turn on the water supply again because the water stoppage will begin the next day. She Yuqing jumped up immediately and went into the kitchen to check the status of the water. There were two empty beverage bottles, so he filled them up immediately. Then he went through the cabinets and boxes in the home to find more water containers. After flushing the toilet, he quickly mopped the floor. And then the water stopped.
At 5pm, they began to make dinner. Although the rice required a lot of water, the two ate some vegetables that did not require much water. The dinner consisted of rice and carrot soup. She Yuqing explained to the reporter that the carrot can be cleaned just by scrubbing, unlike spinach or cabbage which have to be washed with plenty of water.
At 6pm, the two began to enjoy their dinner of rice and carrot soup.
(Sohu) Excerpts from the press conference with Zhang Lijun, who is the deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Agency.
The Songhua River flows past Barbin and then merge into the Heilongjiang River at Tongjiang. The distance from Harbin to Tongjiang is about 700 meters. Based upon current water speed, the polluted water requires about 14 days or so to rech Heilongjiang. Due to dissipation, absorption and other physical processes, the density of the pollutants should decrease gradually. The lower section of the Songhua River will also be joined by major tributaries such as Hulan River, Tangwang River and Mudanjiang. As the water volume grows, the thinning process will be more obvious and the density of the pollutants will decrease.
Below Harbin, there are three points at which water is drawn for drinking. Each year, Shaodong City draws water to the Shaodong reserver twice. They have completed the task this year already, and will not be using the river water again. The Daqing Oil Field Number Ten will prepare its own water supply for some of its employees. Yilan County's Dalianhe town draws water from the Songhua River. The progress of the polluted section of the river has been communicated down the line. After the section passes Harbin and the water quality is still not acceptable, some places will have to take the appropriate measures in order to guarantee the safety of drinking water for the public.
Associated Press: Based upon your description of the pollution situation, how many people in your estimate are being affected by the pollution? You described the procedures that Harbin has taken to deal with the pollution. Can you tell us how the other cities along the river such as Guimusi might be affected and what will they do? Also, who is responsible for this incident? Is it Jilin Petro? Or the Production Safety Department? Or the State Environmental Protection Agency?
Zhang: Along the Songhua River, several million people need to use the water from the rive fro drinking . They are most concentrated in Harbin and Jilin province's Songyuan City. Guimusi does not draw its drinking water from the Songhua River. The principal responsiblity for this pollution incident is the benzene factory of Jilin PetroChemical. The responsiblity for the pollution should be quite obviously borne by the Jilin PetroChemical benzene factory.
The Wall Street Journal: You mentioned that the State Environmental Protection Administration and the provincial government implemented the appropriate plan. But why was the information given to Harbin and other cities downstream nine days afterwards? And why was Russia told after twelve days? The second question is whether you believe that there is a criminal case against Jilin PetroChemical?
Zhang: First, it is still being investigated whether the case against Jilin PetroChemical is a criminal matter. After the investigation is completed, we will inform the media and the public.
Secondly, you asked why this was disclosed to the public only now, and why we informed Russia a dozen days later. We understand that there are several different ways of distribution information. Disclosing to the public is one method. Disclosing to the local governments and corporates along the river is another method. In the process of handling this matter, we have to deal with the incident and we have to also worry about certain things downstream. We think what Jilin province did was acceptable and we are sure that the people were not affected. As for informing Russia, I think that from thsi moment on, it will take around 14 days or so for the polluted water to reach Heilongjiang. How much will the impact be? As far as we can see now, the pollution is lessening and the impact will become smaller. So we have now provided factual and detailed information to Russia. We do not believe that this is late.
Caijing magazine: First, Director Zhang said that the principal pollutants from the Jilin PetroChemical explosion are benzene and nitrobenzene. How much pollutants was released into the Songhua River. Secondly, you mentioned that Songyuan city was also affected. According to the information released by the Heilongjiang Environmental Protection Administration, the amount of benzene released into Songyuan city reached 29 times the acceptable standard. We want to now how much damage did the pollution create for Songyuan? That is to say, how much pollution?
Zhang: You spoke about how much benzene entered the Songhua River. This is a rather specific question. Based upon the estimate by the experts, the quantity provided to us was about 100 tons. From the water speed and the situation of the river bed, the State Environmental Protection Administration still cannot get an accurate estimate from the testing data. Therefore, we can only give you the estimate by the experts. Songyuan City draws its drinking water from the Songhua River. After the incident occurred, the pollution entered into the city boundary of Songyuan. The highest density of nitrobenzene was 40 times higher than the standard. However, the Songyuan City government received the information from the provincial government. They stopped the water intake from the river and activated the alternative water sources to guarantee the safety of the drinking water for their citizens.
(Heilongjiang Life News via Netease) November 24.
On November 23, workers for the Songyuan City Water Supply Corporation Water Purification Factory took a sample of water from the Songyuan river. At around 1pm, water supply was available again in Songyuan City after a stoppage of nearly seven days. The relevant government departments are continuing to monitor the water quality 24 hours a day.
Two reporters from our newpaper went to the Ningjiang district of Songyuan city. The place is located downstream from Jilin and upstream from Harbin. Water supply had been stopped for almost seven days.
When the reporters arrived, it was almost dark. There were very few people on the street. Citizen Wang was waiting for a relative. He said: "The water stopped coming periodically the last few days. Sometimes, the water came but it is difficult to say when it would stop." Afterwards, the reporter spoke to a 60-year-old man nearby. He told the reporter that the water had stopped for six or seven days. Most people had not saved a lot of water, so many people bought spring water to drink. There was little water for daily use. Some people went to the districts where where petroleum company pumps underground well water to fetch water.
In a store named Caiyuan, the reporter found a large quantity of mineral water in the corner. The storekeeper told the reporter that the city had stopped supplying water for seven days, and a lot of people bought mineral water to drink, even to cook rice and wash vegetables. When asked why the water was stopped, he said that the Jilin Petro exposion polluted Songhua River No. 2 and therefore the city government was forced to stop providing water. But many restaurants, hotels and bathhouses still functioned because they used either well water or were supplied by the petroleum company. When the reporter asked about the price of three kinds of mineral water, he found that they were reasonably priced because the supply was ample.
At around 4pm, the reporter drove into the Ningjiang district of Songyuan city, Jilin province. On Linjiang East Road, the reporter found some small restaurants with neon-lit signs. The reporters also observed some clients coming out of bathhouses.
In the bathhouse/hotel named Caiyuan, the reporter saw that there were only two to three diners in the first floor restaurant. When the reporters came to the service desk on the second floor, there were five to six customers paying their bills. When asked if there had been water stoppage, the service worker said that water had never stopped there.
Then the reporter found a street named "Restaurant Street." There were thirty or forty restaurants in a row and the street was brightly lit by neon lights. The reporters learned that these restaurants are in a district in whch the petroleum company supplies the water, and that is why there was no stoppage. The reporter noticed that at around 6pm, there were several dozen motorcycles by the street, and some of the restaurants seemed to be fully occupied.
When the reporter went across the Songhua River Bridge to reach Jiangnan District's Qianguo County, he saw that some restaurants were in business and there were many motorcycles out front. So business was not bad here either. The reporter also checked with some hotels and the service workers also said that Jiangnan district had no water stoppage and the hotels can provide continuous hot water.
(Yazhou Zhoukan; print only) December 4, 2005.
According to media reportes, at 0:55 on November 14, 2005, China Petroleum and Natural Gas Group vice-president Wang Yilin and other senior company officials went to the scene of the incident. He said that he wants to tell the media about what happened.
But when Southern Weekend, which has the most authoritative reputation in investigative reporting, entered, the Jilin provincial propaganda department sought out the Guangdong provincial propaganda department which overseas Southern Weekend, and the article was aborted. Therefore, no media made in-depth and investigative reporting on this incident.
On Novmeber 21, the Harbin city government issued a public notice that on account of the explosion at PetroChina's benzene factory in Jilin further up the Songhua River, it is anticipated that Songhua will be affected by the pollution in the river water coming from upstream. To ensure public safety, the city government has decided to suspend the supply of water through its system temporarily.
According to First Economic News on Novmeber 23, the Jilin PetroChemical responsible person insisted that the explosion produced only carbon dioxide and water, and absolutely will not contaminate the water source. Besides, the Jilin PetroChem has its own waste water processing plant and they would never discharge sub-standard waste water into the Songhua River. Concerning the saying that the explosion at Jilin PetroChem polluted the Songhua river, the Jilin propaganda department said that they had not heard about it. A Jilin propaganda department person said that Harbin is located downstream from Jilin and has always been complaining about the pollution issue, so the water stoppage in Harbin may in fact not be caused by the Jilin PetroChem explosion. He told the reporter that as of the afternoon of November 14, the Songhua river north of Jilin has been normal.
But now that the Jilin provincial party and government have said "Jilin province found that benzene pollutants have entered into the number two Songhua River," this proved that the Jilin PetroChem and the Jilin propaganda department were both lying. Things have reached such a stage, and they were still firm in denying. These are truly bad habits of these departments over the years. According to the investigation by Yazzhou Zhoukan, PetroChina (which is not under the jurisdiction of Jilin province) did not inform Jilin province about the entire truth. An official with the Jilin provincial government told Yazzhou Zhoukan: "Jilin province was by deceived by PetroChina." From this, it can be seen that concealment of information is not limited by officials to the media and the public, but also between the central government departments and the provinces, and it also occurs between the provinces.
(Ta Kung Pao) By Fu Yanhua (傅彥華) and Guo Chunguang (郭春光). November 25, 2005.
According to Heilongjiang Hydrology Department deputy chief engineer Yin Fazhang, the department obtains the most authoritative and accurate data by drawing samples in the middle of the river as well as several meters from the left and right banks. They did not do that in the past.
According to Yin, the testing showed that the polluted slick has expanded from the orignial 80 kilometers to 135 kilometers. Due to the pollutants settling down, being absorped and the increase in discharge by the Fengman hydroelectric station, there was no nitrobenzene detected before November 23, 7pm. From 730pm to 8pm, they were able to detect its composition. At 830pm, they were able to quantify the density as 0.0015mm/L. The density began to increase after 2am on November 24. By 3am, it exceeded the acceptable standard by 0.27 times. The density continued to increase. By 9am, it exceeded the standard by 5.49 times.
As for benzene, it was not detected up to zero hours on November 24. Between 1am and 9am, the presence was detected, with increasing density. The highest level was attained at 9am at 0.0036mm/L, still below the acceptable standard of 0.01mm/L.
This spokesperson told us that the above analysis showed that the polluted slick from upstream had begun to arrive at the Sifangtai water intake point for Harbin by 8am on November 24 and the amount of pollutants will increase. After the crest has past, the amount will then decrease. Based upon the testing done at Songyuan in Jilin and Zhaoyuan in Heilongjiang, the relatively high density portion of the slick (nitrobenzene at 5 times or more than the standard) will pass through the Harbin section in about 40 hours. The polluted slick flowing past Harbin has the characteristic that the nitrobenzene exceeded the standard first and the benzene later, which iis different from what happened in Jilin and Zhaoyuan (benzene exceeded the standard first and nitrobenzene later).
It is estimated that the crest will go past Harbin in the early morning of November 26. The polluted slice will then follow the Songhua River and go past Mulan county, Tonghe county, Guimusi city, Fujin city and Tongjiang city. At Tongjiang, it will join the Heilongjiang river. The reporter understands that the people in the above cities use groundwater for production and daily living, so the local governments will not have to stop the water supply.
Yesterday around noon, the reporter went by the Songhua river. The day was clear, and there were some citizens walking around because they were concerned about this 'mother river' that the people of Harbin counted on their livelihood. In the winter, there are rarely that many people on the river. The reporter came to the Harbin City Highway Bridge. The wide river has not completely frozen up yet, but there is quite a bit of thick ice on both banks. In the middle of the river, there is still about twenty to thirty meters of water flowing, with ice floes in them. The water was not murky, and the blue sky and white clouds were reflected in the water.
The reporter walked down the river for more than twenty minutes. There is no sign of pollution that can be detected by the human eye, nor are there any scenes of the dead floating fish in the foreign media photos.
(China News) November 25, 2005.
A notice from the Harbin City Earthquake Bureau:
1. According to the analysis and judgment of the Heilongjiang Provincial Earthquake Bureau of the recent test data, there is no likelihood of an earthquake in Harbin.
2. According to the "Earthquake Prediction Management Regulations" (State Council Order No. 255), earthquake prediction will be issued by the provincial level government in accordance with procedures. Any other organization, group, media, website or individuals (including experts) have no right to issue predictions to society. The masses should neither believe nor spread rumors about earthquakes.
3. Anyone who hereafter manufactures and disseminates rumors of earthquakes to disrupt the normal order will be prosecuted under "Earthquake Prediction Management Regulations" article 19.
(China Youth Daily via Yahoo! News)
At around midnight of the day of November 13 when the explosion occurred at the Jilin PetroChem Corporation, the relevant Jilin units organized a press conference. As the spokesperson, Jilin PetroChem Party deputy secretary and vice-president Zhou Heifeng told the reporters in all seriousness that the actual testing showed that "there has been no pollution so far in the atmosphere." But on the question of whether the water body became polluted, either Jilin PetroChem did not know, or they deliberately covered it up?
At the 11am press conference of November 14, a Jilin City deputy mayor told the media that the experts' analysis led to the conclusion that the explosion will not cause large-scale pollution. At the scene and the surrounding areas, there were no poisonous gas and the water body was unaffected. Thus, the water stoppage notice at Harbin really surprised the public.
According to the media, Jilin PetroChem insisted that the explosion at the benzene factory did not pollute the Songhua River. Today, the reporter attempted to verify that with Jilin PetroChem, but none of the several workers at the Jilin PetroChem propaganda department answered the numerous calls to their mobile telephones. When the reporter went for help through the Jilin City propaganda department, Jilin PetroChem replied that it cannot accept interviews.
At the public notice board about what can be told to the public at the Jilin city environmental protection bureau, the reporter saw: "Testing results. After being examined by three levels, the test reports can be released." Such being the case, the environmental protection bureau would have known on the day of the incident that the water body had been polluted. So why won't they release that information to the public? A worker at the bureau explained as follows: "This time is different than others. The right to release the news is not in the hands of the environmental protection bureau. There are clear instructions from above."
"You go and contact the Jilin city party committee propaganda department" was what the reporter was uniformly told by various government departments. On November 23, the reporter contacted a deputy director of the Jilin city party committee propaganda department, who said, "At the present, you need to contact the Jilin provincial party committee for any such interview." When the reporter contacted the Jilin provincial party committee, the person said, "Since this is a major environmental incident, the release of information must be cleared by the central government."
An informed source who wanted to remain anonymous told the reporter that the reason the government did not release the information about the pollution to the public in a timely manner was because they wanted to avoid public panic while hoping at the same time that "the release of water from the Fengman hydroelectricity station could dilute the pollution in the water lower enough to meet the acceptable standard."
A member of the Jilin city propaganda department told the reporter that up to now, the city comittee and the provincial committee have still not figured how to get their act together to explain and clarify to the public. "How to explain that? It is not easy to explain," said this person.
(The Guardian) Harbin's poor left out in the cold as city runs dry. By Jonathan Watts. November 25, 2005.
The exposure of the cover-up may have been a ploy by central government to make companies and local authorities more responsible for the environment. According to Chinese journalists the order to go public came directly from the state council - led by prime minister Wen Jiabao. A day later Mr Wen held a meeting with ministers in which he emphasised the environmental woes facing China.
(China News) November 25, 2005.
The State Environmental Protection Administration proclaimed that these statistics for nitrobenzene levels at Sujiacun (the point 16 kilometers upstream from Harbin, from drinking water would be drawn): November 24 18:00 25 times the standard; 19:00 29.45 times the standard; November 25 00:00 33.5 times the standard, which was the maximum; thereafter, the level began to fall down.
In that same section, the benzene level stayed before the standard. The crest of the pollution is down passing by Harbin itself.
Meanwhile, at the Zhaoyuan sector of Songhua River where the river enters from Jilin province to Heilongjiang province, the water quality is now meeting the standard of acceptability.
Here is a bit of a curious question posed to the blogger. There are always people out there in the west who hope or think that an incident such as this one would erode trust in the government and lead to a revolution. There is no point in quoting the Chinese media for citizen interviews, because such people would assume that it is all propaganda. So let us see what the western media have to say about Chinese civilian reaction. I am not talking about the general impressions of the reporters, but interviews with specific Chinese citizens (excluding officials). I trust that the major western media would not fabricate these interviews.
(New York Times) Chinese Town Still Without Water After Toxic Spill. By Jim Yardley. November 25, 2005.
"They were trying to lie and get by," said Qi Guangzhong, 64, as he walked on a promenade beside the brown waters of the Songhua today. "The government wanted to hide this."
Standing beside the river, Mr. Qi said he first learned of the explosion that caused the spill from a Shanghai television station. "People are angry," Mr. Qi said. "The consequences could have been grave if people had started drinking the water and dying." Then, he gazed at the brown, partly frozen waters. "It looks the same today, maybe even a little better," Mr. Qi said. "The pollution is always heavy in the river."
(The Guardian) Harbin's poor left out in the cold as city runs dry. By Jonathan Watts. November 25, 2005.
For the first time in her life Mrs Li is thinking of splashing out on a bottle of water. It may only cost 7p, but for the migrant mother living in one of the city of Harbin's poorest neighbourhoods, anything but tap water has, until now, been an unthinkable extravagance. Decision time is looming. Since China's biggest recent pollution scare prompted the authorities to cut off water supplies two days ago, the 25-year-old has conserved every drop. She no longer washes the family's hair and clothes. She eats only bread, buns and other food that does not require water for cooking. And, though it worries her immensely, she has stopped boiling her baby's bottle to keep it sterile. But her family's supplies are already running out. Unlike most of the rest of the city's 3.5 million residents, she had no bath or barrels to fill when the government warned everyone to prepare for a dry patch. Instead, the family of three drink and wash from three small buckets that are fast emptying. "We can probably manage for a day or two more, but if it goes on much longer I'll be very worried," she said. "I never imagined this would happen when I came to live in the city."
... in the poorer parts of town there is resentment that the burden and the risk are not being equally shared. "It is all right for the rich and the communist cadres," said Zhu Yuan Liang, a scrap collector. "But most people are poor and cannot afford to waste money on bottled water."
(BBC News) Harbin crisis brings people closer. By Louisa Lim. November 24, 2005.
If you go back to people's houses with them you will see that they have water stored in all possible places. I went to one house where the bath was full, and I've even heard of people filling their washing machine for use at a later date because people simply are not quite sure when the water will come back.
For some, this environmental disaster means absolute confidence that the Communist Party can tackle the fallout from an 80km (50 mile) stretch of contaminated water. "Of course the Party will look after us," one woman said, "it wouldn't let us go thirsty."
But there is also discontent. Some businesses have been forced to close down temporarily, like bath houses, car washes and beauty salons. Their owners grumble quietly about economic losses. Others, too, are beginning to question why their leaders lied to them, first telling them the water stoppage was for routine maintenance and only later admitting there was some truth to the rumours of poisoned water.
There is much to get angry about, over the accident itself and in the botched official response. But for now, for people here, the main priority is still finding enough water to get by.
(BBC) Harbin Residents Stay Calm. November 23, 2005.
David Liu is a clerk in a hotel located near the Songhua river in Harbin and he says he is confident the pollution will clear soon. "There is still no water in our hotel. We can only wash our faces and drink, there are no bathing facilities. I don't know much about the water conditions but I am not worried. The Harbin government has said the water will return after three days and I am confident that is the case. The water in the Songhua river is dirty but I don't feel it is dangerous. We just won't eat the fish from the river but after a few days, I am confident that everything will be fine. I've read the news and I know that the water in Jilin province is polluted but I'm feel Harbin will survive. I am optimistic. People in Harbin aren't worried about this matter. Workers go to factories and the students go to school and for people like myself, life just carries on as normal."
(Reuters) Polluted river water heads for Chinese city. By Chris Buckely. November 23, 2005.
Wang Qiang, a rural migrant who works in a Harbin bathhouse, said his employer had put him on unpaid holiday. "We have to pay for drinking water ourselves. It's not cheap, but I can afford it. But I hope this won't go on for too long," he said.
"A lot of people here blame Jilin for not acting sooner after the explosion," said Harbin resident Zhou Qicai. "There were at least several days between the explosion and when they issued any warnings for downstream."
(Reuters) China city residents flee after taps turned off. By Katie Nguyen and David Mageria. November 23, 2005.
Residents of one of China's biggest and coldest cities, where water has been shut off for fear of chemical contamination, are jamming the airport and railway stations to get out, a witness said on Wednesday. Taps were turned off in Harbin, capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province known for its long cold winters, at midnight on Tuesday after rumours of an imminent earthquake had already triggered panic buying of bottled water and food. "With the rumours of the earthquake as well, everyone wants to leave Harbin and it is very difficult to buy tickets, just like during the Lunar New Year," a factory manager told Reuters. "All containers are being used to store water, including the bathtub. It will be okay for four days, but not longer than that."
Blogger's comment: As for me, I am more perplexed as to why most of the western media (my praises to Jon Watts who made a special effort to get out there) only quote government officials and won't talk to real citizens.
(Washington Post) Chinese Officials Sought to Hide Toxic Spill. By Philip P. Pan. November 26, 2005.
Daring journalists succeeded in publishing a series of reports on Friday describing in remarkable detail the efforts by party officials to cover up the chemical spill. Among the disclosures was an admission by a provincial governor that officials in Harbin initially lied to the public about why they were shutting down the water supply, because they were awaiting instructions from senior party leaders.
On Friday night, reporters received orders from the party's central propaganda department to stop asking questions and go home. All state media were told to use the reports only of the official New China News Agency, the journalists said.
... in one of several tough reports on Friday, the state-run China Youth Daily quoted an unidentified city engineer in Jilin saying party officials there were told of the chemical spill within eight hours of the explosion. Citing another unnamed source, it also said the Jilin officials released water from a reservoir into the river in an attempt to dilute the spill and fix the problem without alerting the public.
The report did not say whether Jilin officials told the central government of the spill, but it undercut assertions by a senior official with the State Environmental Protection Administration on Thursday that the blast "was handled properly." He admitted the public was not told of the spill, but said local officials and companies were informed.
Reached by phone, an environmental official in Songyuan, a city of more than 400,000 located between Jilin and Harbin, confirmed that officials there were told of the spill but chose to keep it secret. The official, who asked to be identified only by a surname, Li, said the city shut off the part of its water system that is linked to the river but told the public it was just doing repairs.
A water industry official in Harbin, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was likely that farmers and others living in rural areas between Jilin and Harbin were not informed of the spill and drank or used the contaminated water. Benzene poisoning can cause anemia, some forms of cancer and other blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage.
It was not until Nov. 21, when they were confronted with tests showing pollution at more than 100 times acceptable levels, that Harbin officials decided to shut down the water supply. Even then, the city said the reason for doing so was to "carry out repair and inspections on the pipe network."
In the most damning report in the state media, China Newsweek magazine said the governor of Heilongjiang province, Zhang Zuoji, told a meeting of 400 officials that the city lied because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill. The magazine also said participants in the meeting were told that Harbin officials were reluctant to contradict the denials of Jilin officials that were reported in "authoritative media," a reference to official outlets in Beijing.
It was only after an urgent message by provincial officials on Monday night seeking help and guidance from the central government that officials decided to end the coverup, the magazine said. The announcement came at 2 a.m. on Tuesday, less than two hours after city authorities received instructions from Beijing. A day later, the central government confirmed that a "major water pollution incident" had occurred.
But by then, the damage to the party's credibility had been done. Residents described a rush to leave the city and panicked buying of bottled water and other supplies as the conflicting explanations fueled public confusion and rumors of an imminent earthquake, apparently introduced by a vague television forecast. By Friday, the city appeared much calmer. But even Liu Ying, the local official on Chengxiang Road, said it was reasonable that residents had doubts about the city's promise to resume pumping safe water on Monday. "People don't believe it," she said. "Everyone wants to store more water, just to be safe."
(Ming Pao) November 27, 2005.
After domestic and foreign media reported that the Harbin city government attempted to conceal the truth about the pollution of the Songhua River from the citizens, the local government is taking caution towards the media. Our newspaper was "advised" not to attend the press conference on the grounds that "there will not be any opportunities to ask questions."
Our understanding is that some mainland Chinese newspapers have received instructions from higher ups not to gather news on the water pollution incident anymore. The reporters are to return home and all future reports will "use the Xinhua report." It is noteworthy that yesterday Xinhua Net published an article titled "The government can only be strong if it speaks the truth" with respect to the water crisis, and this is obviously directed at something or someone.
Mainland and overseas people took notice of the river pollution and the collective attempt by the Harbin officials to hide the truth. Other than overseas media, Fujian's Strait Metropolitan News and China Newsweek made reports. It was pointed out that Harbin knew that the level of nitrobenzene in the Songhua River exceeded the acceptable standard shortly after the explosion at the Jilin PetroChem factory. But they did not tell the truth to the public immediately. Instead, they made up the "pipe system maintenance" excuse to stop the water. A member of the Harbin Environmental Protection Bureau confirmed to the reporter that several days after the explosion at the petrochemcial factory, they knew that the river water may be polluted and they sent people out to test the water quality. When asked why it was not announced at the time, she said that at the time, the polluted water "had not arrived at Harbin yet."
Yesterday, our reporter wanted to attend the city government press conference in order to ask the details about how the government reported the matter. When our reporter called up the city bureau for foreign propaganda to inquire about the time and place of the press conference, a director named Liu said that there won't be any opportunity for asking questions and he would not be attending, so "it won't be too convenient for you to go." When the reporter persisted in asking for the address, he refused to give the information and "ordered" the reporter to stay in the hotel and watch the direct television broadcast of the press conference. Upon information, other media reporters were also "advised" not to attend the press conference. Some mainland reporters who were gathering news in Harbin have been instructed by their supervisors not to gather news on this incident anymore.
(Ming Pao) November 27, 2005.
According to the preliminary notice from the Harbin city government, yesterday was the last day of the water stoppage. City party secretary Dao Yuxin estimated on November 25 that the water supply will be restored at 11pm on November 27. But local officials said yesterday that it all depends on the result of the tests on the river water. Many Harbin citizens are closed to using up the water that they stored, or else the quality of the water is deteriorating. Some citizens say that even if the water supply comes back today, they would not dare to use the water immediately.
Yesterday noon, the reporter went to Mr. Zhu's home in the Daowai district. Mr. Zhu's mother was playing with her granddaughter. The table was stacked with the used bottles of distilled water. The Zhu family consists of four persons, and they share the home with two other taxi drivers. Although they stored a lot of water before the stoppage began, there are many people living there and so they used up a lot of water. There are only two small buckets of water left in the bathroom and two buckets of water in the kitchen. "I don't even dare to wash clothes. I have to save the water for cooking," said Mama Zhu as she held her granddaughter in her hands.
When the reporter went into the bathroom, a stench hit his nose. According to Mr. Zhu, they were using the dirty water after washing food to flush the toilet, so this is less than clean. The reporter also observed that there is a thin layer of dust on the top of the water that was saved several days ago. The water would be hygienic only if it were not boiled first. The Harbin Center for Disease Control reminded citizens yesterday that bacteria can grown in stored water, which should be disinfected after two days. The reporter asked: "What happens if the water stoppage continues past tomorrow?" Mama Zhu said that she was ready to take the buckets and queue for water. Even if the water is restored, she won't dare to use it.
(Newsweek) Toxic Fallout. November 27, 2005.
The Harbin crisis began with an explosion on Nov. 13 at the CNPC plant about 165 miles upstream of Harbin in the neighboring province of Jilin. The blast killed five workers and injured dozens more. Initially, Jilin and company officials denied the blast would hurt the environment. But just over a week later, the truth began to leak out. Now, most of the world knows that the chemical explosion released some 100 tons of toxins into the Songhua river, including benzene, a chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics, detergents, pesticides and other materials. The toxic water flowed into Harbin, causing the amount of benzene in the river water there to rise to 30 times the safe level. As of Saturday, the level was still nearly twice the acceptable level, and the bulk of the spill was still moving downstream toward other communities.
Several enterprising journalists and a few honest officials were determined to make sure the truth about the spill was told. On Monday afternoon, Nov. 21, an editor at one of China’s most aggressive magazines, China Newsweek (not related to this publication), spotted a curious headline on the Internet. Harbin officials had announced they were cutting off water to residents for four days to make repairs. Finding it odd that an entire city’s water supply would be shut down at once, the editor called her boss to brainstorm. Rumors that an imminent earthquake was behind the mysterious “repairs” had been circulating on the Internet, but the two editors’ suspected the recent chemical plant explosion in Jilin was behind the mysterious shutdown. When they consulted maps of the two provinces and the location of the plant, they agreed the two events must be related.
With only 24 hours to press time, China Newsweek called a well-placed source in Harbin, who all but confirmed their suspicions. “He said the river had been contaminated, but the government had not publicized this,” the editor told NEWSWEEK. At dawn, the magazine sent three reporters to Jilin and Harbin to get the story, before the government intervened to stop them. “We knew that if we didn’t do the story then, we might not be able to do it the next week,” said an editor, who asked that she not be named because of the sensitive nature of the situation. “The seriousness of this incident could affect the future of a lot of officials in the Northeast.”
The China Newsweek story came out Nov. 24, about one day after the country’s environmental regulators finally owned up to the contamination that had left more than three million people who lived in and around Harbin without running water. The story provided details about which government officials knew what and when. It reported that the governor of Heilongjiang province had told 400 officials in a closed meeting that the city of Harbin had lied about the water-supply shutdown because it was waiting for permission from higher authorities to disclose the spill and didn’t want to contradict Jilin official reports. And it said that the cover-up ended only after provincial officials in Heilongjiang sent a desperate request for guidance to the central government. The editor of China Newsweek said she hoped the story would show people the harm done by “the conflicting interests of government officials from neighboring parts of the river.”
As the Songhua’s toxic waters flow out of Harbin (headed toward the Russian city of Khabarovsk, about 450 miles away), government officials are trying to contain the fallout. On Saturday, Wen Jiabao braved Harbin’s famously frigid air to distance the central government leadership from the local officials who tried to mislead the public. He assured a small gathering of local people that they would have plenty of safe water to drink and that the government would “give the public prompt information.” But a day earlier, central government propaganda czars banned domestic media from publishing news of the disaster (it made an exception for the state’s main media organ, the New China News Agency).
Some journalists say they will ignore the order. The staff at one influential Beijing magazine said they’d already written a piece to be published early next week and will go ahead with those plans. A reporter at the magazine says the decision was an easy one. “It’s just so outrageous. You have 3.5 million people without water for four days and the city says that they’re just handling repairs,” said the reporter.
(Associated Press via The Guardian) Running Water Restored to Chinese City. Joe Mcdonald. November 27, 2005.
Running water was restored Sunday in this city of 3.8 million people where a chemical spill forced a five-day shutdown, but officials warned it was not immediately safe to drink. Water supplies resumed in Harbin at 6 p.m. - about five hours earlier than expected, the official Xinhua News Agency said. It said tests showed a 50-mile spill of toxic benzene in the Songhua River had passed the city in northeastern China. State television showed the governor of Heilongjiang province, where Harbin is located, drinking a glass of boiled water drawn from a tap at a local family's home. ``It tastes good,'' said Gov. Zhang Zuoji.
(Xinhua Net) November 27, 2005.
Northeast Chinese city of Harbin resumed water supply at 6:00 p.m. Sunday since cutoff Wednesday over pollution fears, as Governor of Heilongjiang Province Zhang Zuoji took the first drink after resumption. the governor had his drink in the house of the 75-year-old citizen Pang Yucheng, who is living in the Daoli District of Harbin. "I took the first drink to fulfil the government's solemn promise made a few days ago to the citizens that water supply willbe restored," Zhang said. "It was also meant to reassure the public and dispel their worries," he added.
(SCMP) Some taps flowing again in Harbin. By Shi Jiangtao. November 28, 2005.
State television showed the governor drinking a glass of boiled water at the home of retired cadre Pang Yucheng's . "This shows that the Communist Party and the government keep our word," Mr Zhang said, referring to pledges by government leaders last Wednesday that water supplies would resume in four days.
In an interview with Xinhua, Mr Zhang admitted the government had been wrong to mislead the public by saying supplies had been halted for maintenance when the suspension was first announced. Mr Zhang said the government had had to take into account fears of public panic, the "feelings" of Jilin and China's relations with Russia, into which the Songhua River flows. "With the support of the central authorities, we corrected this `lie with good intentions' within 10 hours," Mr Zhang told Xinhua, adding that this swift action "has won us understanding from the people".
(Associated Press via The Guardian) China City Gets Water; Not Safe to Drink. Joe McDonald. Novmeber 28, 2005.
State media have accused officials of lying about and trying to conceal the spill - the result of a Nov. 13 chemical plant blast in Jilin, a city upstream from Harbin, that killed five people and forced 10,000 more to flee their homes.
But on Monday, media coverage was effusively upbeat, with newspaper photos showing smiling children in Harbin running their taps and water surging through treatment plants. "We won!'' said a headline in the newspaper Life News below a photo of the provincial governor drinking a glass of boiled tap water on Sunday.
But officials warned that the water wasn't immediately safe to drink, or bathe in, after lying in underground pipes for five days. They said they would let the public know when the water was potable again but gave no indication with that would be. "It's back, but I don't know what I can use it for yet,'' said Guan Hongya, a manager for a textile company. "We can use it to flush the toilet, but otherwise it might be no good.''
(TIME) Behind a Chinese Cover-up. By Mattew Forney and Susan Jakes. December 1, 2005.
The reason that officials in northeastern China decided not to announce that a 50 mile slick of toxic benzene was headed downriver toward the city of Harbin earlier this month was their fear of damaging tourism and investment in the region, sources tell TIME. Instead, as the potentially lethal spill approached the metropolis of 10 million people, the city said in an online statement that the entire water supply was being shut down for "water main maintenance and repair."
The spill had occurred on Nov. 13 when an explosion at a state-owned chemical factory in the province of Jilin released huge amounts of benzene into the Songhua river. But for the next nine days the government balked at telling citizens of Harbin, in the neighboring province of Heilongjiang, about the approaching pollutants, despite the fact that the river is the source of drinking water for the center of the city. The crucial decision to keep the spill secret was explained to provincial officials by Heilongjiang governor Zhang Zuoji at an internal meeting in Harbin's Peace Village Hotel on November 22, according to one attendee who spoke to TIME and shared his notes about the meeting on condition of anonymity.
Chinese Communist Party officials have been frequently criticized for trying to cover up bad news after the fact, but in this case they chose to withhold what they knew even while the danger persisted. As the poison flowed downstream, information flowed in only one direction: up. While the public remained in the dark, officials reported to their superiors, who in turn reported further up the command chain. At each level, officials understood that there was less risk of official censure in awaiting orders than in making snap decisions that might have enabled residents to prepare.
The secret meeting at the Communist Party-owned Peace village Hotel was convened by Heilongjiang governor Zhang at 2.30pm, and was attended by 400 officials. According to the source who spoke to TIME, the event was so hastily arranged that nobody checked identification cards or invitations on the way in. As a vice-governor called the meeting to order, hotel employees were still adding chairs for those standing in the aisles. Attendees, who included county and city officials and executives from large state-run enterprises, had already been briefed and knew of pollutants in the river.
Governor Zhang spoke into a microphone. "When we received the report on the 18th, we immediately took measures," he said. "We had to plan for the worst-case scenario, not the best. If we didn't turn off the water, the masses might drink it. Who would want to shoulder that responsibility? "
But Zhang did not shoulder the responsibility of telling the public why it would endure dry taps for four days. "Why didn't we immediately announce the situation to people outside the system?" he asked. "There were three reasons. First, the pollution had not yet entered our province. Second, we had not received direct data. Third, the Xinhua news agency had just reported that there was no pollution." In fact, Xinhua doesn't seem to have issued such a report on its public newswire, although the agency also produces internal reports for top government officials.
Officials in Heilongjiang declined to confirm Zhang's comments. "It was an internal meeting," said an official from the Heilongjiang Information Department who identified himself only by his surname, Yue, "which means it was not the kind of news that should be reported. It was confidential information." The party's flagship newspaper, People's Daily, reported on the meeting but never mentioned Zhang's explanation of the cover-up. It reported only that Zhang announced the formation of an emergency leadership group to manage the crisis, with himself as its head.
But in fact Zhang was never fully in charge: After receiving news of the spill he had contacted the State Council, China's Beijing-based cabinet, seeking instructions, but had received no reply. That apparently put him in a quandary. "On the one hand, people have the right to know. The responsibility of government is to be open and transparent," he said. "On the other hand, investment in Heilongjiang province is at a critical moment. The travel season is nearly upon us, especially the ice festival." Harbin's annual ice festival draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to view massive sculptures carved from blocks of ice taken from the Songhua.
"Finally, we needed to consider who will speak to the outside," he said, apparently in reference to notifying downstream cities in Russia. The Songhua flows into Russia's Amur river before emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk. "We asked the State Council, who will inform them? And how? This is not the kind of thing a province can decide."
With the shut-off looming, he explained, Harbin city officials knew they had to say something. So, Zhang concluded, "Harbin created an explanation. It could only say that it was conducting maintenance on the water main." Zhang decided a misleading statement was better than no statement at all.
Zhang continued by saying that at 5pm on November 21, he contacted his immediate boss, the province's Communist Party Secretary, Song Fatang. From 11:30pm to 2am, both men again reported to the State Council in Beijing. They requested that an upstream reservoir be opened to dilute the scum floating down the river, asked that a group of water-safety experts be dispatched, and informed Beijing that they would turn off the water the next day.
Zhang said he received "a memorandum" from Beijing around midnight on Nov. 21, but didn't reveal the contents. He told officials to be ready for a disaster on the scale of an earthquake or a bird flu outbreak. At 2am on Nov. 22 — presumably with Beijing's permission — Harbin put out a second statement alerting the population to the water stoppage. This time, the statement acknowledged that the chemical-plant explosion had "perhaps polluted the water" in the Songhua. This announcement seemed to calm residents, as did efficient logistics that ensured access to plenty of clean drinking water trucked in from neighboring cities.
The meeting ended with Zhang saying that after the water was declared safe, he would drink the first glass. He did so last Sunday evening, two weeks after the toxic spill nobody wanted to mention.