Leak Highlights China’s Water Pollution Problem

Chinese state media reports contamination of a north Chinese river has led the water supply in Handan to be cut off, from Xinhua:

A statement by the city government said the cut-off was caused by an accident in the neighboring Shanxi Province where industrial pollutants poured into the upper reaches of the Zhanghe River.

The statement did not provide details about the accident, or how many households have been affected.

The city cut off its water supply from Yuecheng Reservoir located on the river and switched to another underground water source, according to the statement.

Residents in several parts of Handan told Xinhua reporters that the water supply had not resumed on Saturday evening.

Although the number of households affected was not included in the statement, the population of the city and the surrounding rural areas is about 9 million, AP reports:

Xinhua News Agency said Sunday that a loose drainage valve in a chemical plant was to blame for the leaking of nearly 9 tons of the chemical aniline into the river. It said another 30 tons of aniline have been contained in a disused reservoir.

Aniline, used in manufacturing polyurethane, can be toxic to humans.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the initial accident occurred in Changzhi, Shanxi Province:

Ma Jun, director of the nonprofit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in Beijing, described the incident in an interview as “serious” due to both the amount of pollutants involved and the toxicity of the substance. But he said the broader problem was the delay in making it public. “The government should do a thorough investigation,” Mr. Ma said.

Changzhi, the upriver city in Shanxi province where the initial accident occurred, illustrates the challenges China faces in protecting its natural resources. In a marketing video, historic Changzhi bills itself as the nation’s “attractive city” in the cradle of Chinese civilization, with plentiful clean water that runs through a rugged mountain range with Grand Canyon-like vistas. Yet Changzhi in the video also boasts an industrial backbone of coal mining, chemical production and steel manufacturing.

Users of Sina Corp.’s SINA -0.02% Twitter-like Weibo microblog service posted photos from Handan of store shelves emptied of bottled water and criticized the time it took for authorities to report the leak. Chinese bloggers also reposted a report from the national broadcaster China Central Television that included a photo of the Tianji plant’s ruptured pipeline.

Water pollution is a serious problem in China, with garbage blamed for clogging dams, refineries for damaging marine life and fertilizers for ruining aquifers. Acute shortages of water through much of the country have been worsened by industrial accidents and often slow reporting by polluters. Still, it isn’t clear whether the Changzhi incident shows a worsening of the situation or greater public attention to it.

This incident comes amid the recent Qidong paper plant protests and another incident of a chemical leak in Guangxi last year. Another Xinhua article says the response to the chemical leak was just as troubling as the leak itself:

The Changzhi municipal government clearly failed the crisis management test — a failure that has endangered millions of people and aquatic life.

Had the information been disclosed earlier, the pollutants could have been contained within a much smaller area of water and damage to public health could have been minimized.

It is time for authorities and businesses to realize that the costs of trying to hide a crisis are much higher than handling it in a timely manner.

They also need to see that revealing information themselves would help to curb the spread of rumors, which often exaggerate the facts and make accidents seem much worse.

See also “Protecting China’s Natual Habitat Feels Like a Game,” via CDT.

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