Beijing responds to Harbin crisis

Associated Press
Published November 27, 2005

HARBIN, China - Visiting Prime Minister Wen Jiabao ordered local leaders to restore running water to the 3.8-million people of the northeast city of Harbin, who spent a fourth day Saturday without supplies after a chemical spill in the river that provides their water.

The foreign minister, meanwhile, delivered an unusual public apology to Moscow for possible damage from the spill on the Songhua River, which is flowing toward a city in the Russian Far East.

Beijing's show of care and contrition was almost unprecedented and represented an effort to restore its damaged standing with both China's public and Moscow, a key diplomatic partner.

The government said benzene levels in the Songhua near Harbin were dropping. But it said running water would not resume until 11 p.m. today, a full day after originally planned when the shutdown occurred because of a chemical plant explosion, setting off panic-buying of bottled water in Harbin, a city of 3.8-million people.

"We are a people's government. We should show a high degree of responsibility to the people," Wen told local and provincial leaders, according to the state television. "We cannot allow even a single person not to have water."

Wen promised to "conscientiously investigate the reasons and responsibility for the accident," the report said.

Residents stood in line in sunny but subfreezing weather to fill buckets and teakettles with water from trucks sent by the city government and state companies. Beijing has promised to punish officials found responsible for the disaster. Local Communist Party officials and China's biggest oil company, which owns the chemical plant through a subsidiary, have publicly apologized.

The disaster began with a Nov. 13 explosion at the plant in Jilin, a city about 120 miles southeast of Harbin. Five people were killed and 10,000 evacuated.

But it was only this past week that Beijing announced that the blast poisoned the Songhua with about 100 tons of benzene, a potentially cancer-causing compound used in detergents and plastics.

The spill has been an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao's government. Hu has made a priority of repairing environmental damage from China's 25 years of sizzling economic growth and of looking after ordinary Chinese.

Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing's apology to Russian Ambassador Sergei Razov was reported on state television, which is seen by hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Officials in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, downstream from Harbin, have complained that China failed to tell them enough about the poison that is due to flow into Russia in about two weeks.

Earlier Saturday, Wen visited the Harbin No. 3 Water Filtration Plant, where 300 paramilitary police were delivering some of the 1,400 tons of activated carbon sent to the city for water filtration once the Songhua is deemed safe to use.

Environmentalists have accused the government of failing to prepare for such a disaster and of failing to react quickly enough. They have questioned the decision to allow construction of a plant handling such dangerous materials near important water supplies.

Earthquake shakes part of central China

BEIJING - A strong earthquake struck central China on Saturday, killing at least 15 people, injuring more than 450 and destroying hundreds of buildings, the government said. The official Xinhua News Agency said the magnitude-5.7 quake was centered in Jiangxi province's Ruichang city. The U.S. Geological Survey reported the quake had a magnitude of 5.5. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.