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Spring thawing not to repollute Songhua river
Updated: 2006-03-12 10:56

China's top environmental official has said the thawing of ice in the spring will not repollute the Songhua River, the scene of a severe toxic chemical spill last year.

Spring thawing not to repollute Songhua river
Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, speaks at a news conference in Beijing March 11, 2006. [newsphoto]
"The final conclusion is that this spring, the Songhua River will not have a second incident of pollution," Zhou Shengxian, director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, told reporters at a news conference.

A blast ripped through a PetroChina chemical factory on November 13 in China's northeastern Jilin province, spewing tonnes of toxic benzene into the river.

An 80-kilometer-long (50-mile) slick of benzene consequently surged down the Songhua into the city of Harbin leaving up to four million people without tap water for days.

The spill also caused alarm in neighboring Russia as the Songhua feeds into the Amur which provides the main source of drinking water for the 600,000 residents of the Russian city of Khabarovsk.

China managed to reduce the risk by increasing the flow of water through reservoirs into the Songhua to dilute the chemical.

Experts however had warned that the problem could become worse in spring when ice flows that have trapped some of the pollution melt.

But Zhou said Saturday that Chinese and Russian experts have analyzed the water and concluded there was currently no danger and would not be any danger once the ice melted.

"Our final conclusion is Songhua River's fish are safe to eat, the dairy products made by farms (on the banks of the river) can be eaten," said Zhou Saturday.

Traces of pollution were found in the Amur in December but tests found they presented no danger to humans, Russian officials have said.

China has been embarrassed by the accident, one of the biggest environmental problems it has faced in recent years, which highlighted the environmental costs of its rapid industrialization and economic growth.

Scientific approach to development

China's environment chief thinks "scientific approach to development" is the tool he needs to tackle the country's pollution woes.

Zhou Shengxian took the position when his predecessor was forced to resign over his handling of a toxic spill last November that poisoned the Songhua River, a source of drinking water for millions, but Zhou said he was looking to avoid the same fate.

"It has equipped me with a very powerful weapon. If I use this weapon properly I will not end up resigning," said Zhou.

Zhou said the growth at any cost approach was changing.

"Prosperity at the expense of the environment is superficial and weak. It is only a delay of disaster," he said.

The Songhua River spill, which became an international incident when an explosion at a chemical plant sent 100 tonnes of cancer-causing benzene compounds flowing toward Russia, showed that a crisis is already underway.

In inspections of chemical plants following the spill, SEPA found dozens of others that posed safety hazards.

Its report to parliament said of that of 43,000 enterprises inspected nearly half were found "with hidden danger in terms of environmental safety". The report called the environmental situation across China "very grave" and said capacity to enforce and monitor environmental laws was lagging.

Zhou, along with China's top economic planners, have pledged reforms that better account for the cost of development, including changing the pricing system of water and energy so they reflect the scarcity of the resources.

"Under some conditions, development is like combustion," Zhou warned. "What's burned away are resources, what's leftover is pollution, and what's produced in that process is GDP."

The government is also introducing regulations that aim to integrate environmental losses into the evaluation of leaders, but analysts say it will take time before local officials, keen on boosting investment and accustomed to being judged on growth above all else, change their behaviour.

Officials are also sometimes reluctant to use cleaner technologies if they are more expensive. A 2004 SEPA survey found that only half of new sewage treatment plants were operating because cash-strapped local officials thought they were too costly to use.

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