Chinese Petrochemical Explosion Spills Toxics in Songhua River

BEIJING, China, November 25, 2005 (ENS) - The Songhua River, which supplies drinking water to the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, has been contaminated with toxic chemicals from an explosion at an upstream petrochemical plant, the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) confirmed Wednesday. The Songhua River is a tributary of the Heilong River on the border between the Russian Far East and China.

SEPA Vice Minister Zhang Lijun told a news conference in Beijing that Jilin Petrochemical Corporation, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation, "should be responsible" for the leak of benzene, nitrobenzene and other chemicals following the explosion.

The explosion took place at the Jilin Petrochemicals on November 13, but until Wednesday company officials denied that the river had been polluted.


Map of China shows the city of Harbin (Map courtesy CIA)
The Jilin officials had said the explosion produced only carbon dioxide and water, which would not cause pollution of the Songhua River, "China Business News" reported Tuesday.

But Vice Minister Zhang told reporters that some 100 tons of the chemicals benzene, nitrobenzene and other toxics, about 10 tanker truck loads, entered the river as a result of the explosion. More than 10,000 Jilin residents were evacuated to avoid chemical pollution and another possible explosion.

To the north of Jilin, in Harbin, a city of 3.8 million that is the capital of Heilongjiang province, authorities shut off drinking water delivery as of Tuesday midnight and have shipped in millions of liters of bottled water to meet basic needs.

The city government is keeping a close watch on an 80 kilometer (50 mile) long stretch of polluted water in the river which flowed into the city early Thursday.

Benzene is a carcinogenic chemical and even small doses in a river system can present health risks. Drinking liquids containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, rapid heart rate, coma, and death.


The Songhua River is a source of pleasure to Harbin residents who take boats out on it in the summertime. (Photo courtesy Galen Frysinger)
On Wednesday, a delegation headed by Jiao Zhengzhong, vice governor of Jilin Province and Party secretary of the city of Jilin where the chemical plant is located, came to Harbin to apologize to local residents.

The delegation brought 71 tons of mineral water to help provide drinking water for Harbin residents and to apologize for "the inconvenience."

Zeng Yukang, director of Daqing Petroleum Administration, who was in the delegation, apologized to Harbin's residents on behalf of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).

Both Jilin Petrochemical Corporation and Daqing Petroleum Administration are affiliated with the CNPC.

WWF, the global conservation organization, fears that the toxic spill will have an adverse impact on the region’s people and environment, and it could spread through the river ecosystem north to Russia.

“The region’s precious natural resources must be protected as a result of this spill,” said Dr. Li Lifeng, Director of WWF China’s Freshwater Program. “We need to work together to ensure a healthy ecosystem and ecological security.”


The Songhua River at Jilin is littered with dead fish. (Photo credit unknown)
The Chinese chemical plant that exploded in Jilin produced aniline, phenol, acetone, and some pesticide intermediates. After the explosion, the chemicals detected along the polluted water systems include benzene, aniline, nitrobenzene, and xylene.

These chemicals all have toxic and hazardous health effects, WWF warns. Some are carcinogenic, and some have adverse effects on neurological, developmental and reproductive systems. At high levels, benzene is lethal to humans. Chronic exposure leads to progressive degeneration of bone marrow and leukemia.

Because the polluted water is heading towards Russia, China has informed Russian officials of the pollution, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said here Thursday.

Environmentalists in Russia are monitoring the Amur River, which is fed by the Songhua River, and is the main water source for Khabarovsk, one of the largest cities in Russia’s Far East.

The chemical spill took place in the Heilong-Amur ecoregion, a high priority conservation region for WWF. The area covered with temperate forests and is a critical habitat for tigers, leopards, bears and musk deer.

“We need much stronger national and international laws to ensure that hazardous and highly toxic substances, like those released in the explosion, are either not produced or are severely restricted,” said Clif Curtis, director of WWF’s Global Toxics Program.

“The global community needs to take much more concerted action to regulate industrial chemicals more effectively," Curtis said. "Such actions must guarantee that basic safety information of chemicals is systematically provided, and that rigorous procedures and safeguards are in place.”