BEIJING -- The long-term environmental impact of last month's chemical explosion in northern China that left millions of people without safe drinking water remains to be seen. But the political fallout has begun.
Beijing fired its top environmental official Friday in an effort to show accountability for the mishandling of the crisis. More heads are expected to roll, possibly including local party leaders in Jilin province where a petrochemical plant accident spilled 100 tons of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals into the Songhua River.
Residents of Harbin, a city of 3.8 million, were not told about the contamination until 10 days after the accident. The 50-mile-long toxic slick is making its way downstream toward the Russian border, forcing towns and villages along the way to shut off taps and switch to bottled water.
Observers say the Harbin water crisis illustrates the bigger problem of China's bureaucratic paralysis during emergencies.
"This is a systemwide failure," said Jiang Wenran, acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. "The system itself is not set up to respond quickly. At every level there was confusion and delay."
Xie Zhenhua, chief of the State Environmental Protection Administration since 1993, took the fall partly because he sat at the top of the chain of command.
Shortly before Xie's resignation was announced, his agency lashed out at Jilin officials for failing to report the disaster in a timely fashion. For about four days after the explosion Nov. 13, the agency received no information on the accident, "losing the best opportunity" to control the pollution, said Wang Yuqing, vice minister of the administration, according to the official China Daily.
According to Jiang, a Harbin native who has done extensive research on the incident, authorities in Jilin and Heilongjiang, where Harbin is located, reported to Beijing, seeking directions. The scale of the disaster was such that they had no authority to act independently of the central government.
"When the responsibility reached them, [SEPA officials] were not able to make a quick decision," Jiang said. "They were telling the Jilin and Heilongjiang officials to find some kind of excuses."
A day before it would have been too late to warn the public to prepare for the shutoff of the city's tap water, Harbin officials announced that they needed to do maintenance work on the pipes. What has been billed as a "well-intentioned lie" helped set off panic, prompting skeptical residents to hoard bottled water and, in some cases, flee the city.
The cover-up ended only after Premier Wen Jiabao intervened and said the public must be told the truth, according to Jiang. It remains unclear when Wen became aware of the contamination.
Even if Wen hadn't stepped in, China's environmental problems are increasingly hard to hide.
The Songhua River is an international river. It flows through two Chinese provinces, into the Heilong River on the Chinese side and becomes the Amur in Russia.
With a potential diplomatic fiasco on its hands, Beijing issued a rare apology to Moscow and offered assistance in monitoring the pollution and filtering the drinking water.
Two years ago, China came under heavy international criticism for denying the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome until the virus had spread beyond its borders. To show it meant business, the central government fired the health minister and the Beijing mayor.
The decision again to remove a high-level official is another sign that Beijing is trying to regain public trust.
"This is a great move by the central leadership; it will bring the issue of accountability into sharper focus," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "My sense is, further changes are coming."
China no longer can afford to pay lip service to the country's mounting environmental problems, observers say.
According to the Ministry of Water Resources, about 300 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water and up to 34 percent of the rural population drinks water contaminated by industrial pollutants.
Another recent report indicated that 70 percent of China's rivers are contaminated because of rampant development, illegal dumping and inadequate oversight.
Factories and pharmaceutical companies have been discharging waste into the Songhua for years, according to Pacific Environment, an environmental organization based in San Francisco. The group has called on China to publish a list of all polluting factories along the river and the toxic compounds they release.
Ching Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.