Dams sealed for toxic spill

Water supply threatened in China as earlier leak enters Russia


BEIJING -- The Chinese government provided details yesterday of its efforts to contain the second major environmental disaster to hit the country's waterways in little more than a month.

State media reported that authorities sealed dams and pumped neutralizing chemicals into the Bei River after a toxic spill of cadmium Tuesday from a smelter in southern China's Guangdong province, where thousands of factories make up the manufacturing hub of a booming export-driven economy.

As the spill threatened the provincial capital of Guangzhou north of Hong Kong, the gates of two dams downstream were closed for the cleanup effort, Wang Zhensheng, a local Communist Party official, told the official China Daily.

The latest water crisis came as the country was still reeling from a chemical explosion in the northern Chinese city of Jilin last month that dumped 100 tons of carcinogenic benzene and other compounds into the Songhua River.

About 3.8 million people in the city of Harbin were left without tap water for nearly a week.

That toxic leak, which has crossed the border and entered neighboring Russia, has become a source of embarrassment for Beijing, which has been forced to apologize to officials in Moscow.

The benzene slick arrived Thursday in the city of Khabarovsk in Russia's Far East.

Authorities there said the city of 580,000 people would keep supplying running water from the river because chemical levels were still within a safe range.

Water pollution is a continuing problem in China. By their own admission, Chinese authorities are unable to provide safe drinking water to an estimated 360 million people, with much of the tainted water blamed on industrial pollution.

The manager of the smelter in the city of Shaoguan in Guangdong province - where the spill occurred - was removed from his post, said Huang Yunwu, director of the propaganda department of the city's Communist Party branch.

Environmentalists say many more rivers are being poisoned in the country's relentless drive for economic progress.

Often, they say, the contaminations go unreported because of local protectionism and ignorance.

The fact that the Guangdong case became known as quickly as it did is due partly to lessons learned from the Harbin spill. Authorities there waited 10 days before informing the public.

"It's progress that they were more willing to report the problem," said Wen Bo, the representative in Beijing for the environmental group Pacific Environment. "Too many factories are dumping chemicals into rivers. The government can't monitor them all. What we need is more public awareness to prevent these disasters from happening in the first place."

Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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