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Though the water supply was restored on Sunday evening, officials advised residents not to drink water from taps for the time being while tests continued on its quality.
Gu Jidong, a Harbin native now a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Hong Kong, said the pollution from such an accident would occur in two phases.
The first phase was the chemicals in the river water, which were gradually being diluted as they flowed downstream. The second phase involved heavy concentrations of chemicals absorbed by the river-bed and sediment, which would be gradually released into the water over a period of time.
"It is not as simple as saying that the chemicals have now passed the city and the water is now safe," he said. "The local government is talking about the first stage, but not about the second stage." It would take three to five years before the pollution was degraded, Prof Gu said.
Yang Haizhen, a professor of environmental science at Tongji University in Shanghai, said some of the chemicals would be absorbed in the river-bed and the land beside the river. "It is still not clear how long it will take for the bacteria in the soil and water to decompose the pollutants. It depends on the concentration of the chemicals," he said.
Lin Qiang, an official at Heilongjiang Provincial Environmental Protection Administration Bureau, said the levels of benzene and nitrobenzene in the city's main reservoir had been lower than the safe levelsfor 40 hours continuously. Researchers were collecting samples from the city's water faucets and the river-bed, he said. Rural residents of the region have been told not to fish in the river or to let their animals drink water directly from it.
Prof Gu said the chemicals could be absorbed by fish in the river and enter the food chain. The water was also currently too cold for the micro-organisms that would attach to the chemicals and degrade them.
Most of the farms in the region use underground wells rather than riverwater to irrigate their crops. According to Prof Gu, the wells near the site of the explosion, where the concentration of chemicals was particularly high, could become polluted, but the bulk of underground wells faced no risk at all.
Russia's ministry for emergency situations said yesterday the chemical spill could affect over 1m residents along the Amur river, including Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000 people. Preparations were being made to switch off the water supply and airlift active carbonfor use in water treatment facilities.
According to Bloomberg, Sergei Zimin, a spokesman for the regional government in Khabarovsk, said the river had been polluted with benzene from Chinese chemicals plants even before the November 13 explosion in Jilin city. "There is no other explanation for the fact that we have already discovered higher-than-normal levels of benzene in the Amur," he was quoted as saying.
In Jilin, a city by the Songhua river in China, was an explosion at a petroleum plant. The accident happened in November 2005. After several explosions shook a chemical plant owned by a unit of PetroChina Co. By this explosion were killed five people and injured 23. Industries in the area of Jilin using large amounts of water were ordered to shut down. The biggest problem were not the killed and injured people, but the contaminated river Songhua. It was not clear how the contamination would affect other people who live along the Songhua, which stretches nearly 2000 kilometres across the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, home to Harbin. The polluted zone in the river was about 80 kilometres long and took about 40 hours to pass. The right bank was still 100 times more than the standard while the left bank was 10 times as much. Benzene and nitrobenzene were found at the Songhua Jiangjiu section, of which benzol was 108 times the standard but the nitrobenzene was under the standard. As the water moved, the pollutants were carried downstream. We set the main focus on Harbin, a city which is downstream from Jilin. The population in Harbin was told the water supply system will be shut down for approximately four dasy as of noon, November 22. Finally the water supply was shut off from the evening of November 22 until November 26.
The water in the Songhua river was contaminated among other things by benzene. And there was a high level of benzene in the river. Eating or drinking high levels of benzene can be very dangerous, that was the main-reason for shut don the water supply system. It can cause:
* Vomiting or irritation of the stomach.
* Dizziness, sleepiness, or convulsions.
* Rapid heart rate, coma, and death.
* Direct contact with the skin may cause redness and sores.
* It can also damage your eyes.
Animal studies indicate that benzene may damage genes and may affect the ability to have healthy children. Benzene affects the circulatory system by increasing heart rate. Benzene affects the digestive system by causing vomiting or irritation of the stomach. Benzene also harms the immune system. This increases chances of infection and reduces the body's ability to fight off diseases.
People living in Harbin got panic additionally, because there should be an eartquake after 1 am. As if this wouldn´t be enough, all water in the stores was sold out. Thousands of residents of Harbin on Wednesday night jammed its railwas station and booked out all available flights as a deadly 80 km toxic slick made its way down the Songhua river, threatening to poison the north-eastern Chinese city´s water supplies. The government knew about this accident before but they didn´t tell the population. But the government told to repair the pipes.
Are the reasons given for the water stoppage plausible?
1. It is 10 degrees below zero. There is no reason to try to repair the pipes in the cold.
2. Hot water is being used to provide heating. Four days of water stoppage means that the citizens will have to live in iceboxes. No reasonable person would do that. The government would not make this decision unless something big was happening.
3. The water stoppage was supposed to begin at noon on November 22, 2005. But there were already large-scale stoppages across Harbin on November 21. This was abnormal.
4. Pipe maintenance is usually done one section at a time. To bring the whole city down for four days is going to cost inestimable economic losses. This is irregular.
Many institutions in Harbin had to shut down because of no water. Bottled water was brought from other cities to Harbin so that the population had a bit of water. Nevertheless, there were roundabout 3.1 million people without flowing water. There are two big man-made aspects by this accident. At first, the population was not prepared by the government, secondly, the accident in the chemical plant was man-made.
The blasts shattered windowpanes of buildings 100 to 200 metres away from the plant. It took nearly 300 fire-fighters to bring the blaze under control.
More than 10,000 residents were evacuated as a precaution against more explosions and severe pollution from the plant. The evacuees were residents of two communities and students in the northern section of Beihua University and Jilin Institute of Chemical Technology.
The accident has seriously polluted an important river and affects not only the two Chinese provinces but also Russia’s far east.
The government initially said the stoppage would last four days, from 23 November till 27 November, but a water company official has told there is no set timetable for the resumption of supplies.
Everyone wanted to leave Harbin because nobody knew when the water will come back. Flights from Harbin were sold out, most of the businesses and schools had shut. Fifteen hospitals have been placed on stand-by to cope with possible poisoning victims.
(Picture of the Songhua riverbank nine days after the blast at the PetroChina chemical plant. The accident forced Harbin and it's 3.8 million citizens to shut off its water supply for four days.)
(People rushed supermarkets after they've heard the water misses for the next four days.)
On 13 November an explosion took place at Jilin Chemical Industrial Co. plant (a PetroChina benzene factory) at Jilin, a city about 380 kilometres up river from Harbin. The chemical plant producing benzene under the Jilin Petrochemical Company of the China National Petroleum Corp. is a few hundred metres from the banks of the 1,850-kilometre river. About 100 tonnes of toxic chemicals, including benzene,nitrobenzene and aniline spilled into the Songhua River, which serves as a major drinking water supply to Harbin. The ratio of the substances spilled is not known at this time.
The Songhua River is Harbin's main water source and the dimension of the accident was getting enlarged because the Songhua River joins the Heilongjiang River and forms a natural border with the Russiand Federation. The river continues into Russia and is called Amur River and flows into the Sea of Okhotsk. Around 10 days after the explosion, an 80-km contaminated stretch of water reached Harbin and was expected to take 40 hours to pass, leaving around 3,5 million people temporarily without access to water.
Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province in north-eastern of China. Authorities were reportedly increasing water flows to dilute pollutants and providing bottled water for the population in Harbin.
The provincial government had warned Harbin residents to stay away from the river. The reason for that is to beware possible exposure to airborne contaminants coming off the water. China's State Environmental Protection Administration said on 23rd November that the Songhua River had suffered "major water pollution" after the 13th November explosion at the plant upstream. Dalianhe town of Yilan Country with a population of 20.000 also uses the Songhua River as a source of drinking water. But these were the only two places that used the river directly as a source for drinking water.
( A few minutes after the explosive accident in Jilin Chemical Industrial Co. plant)
( Picture of the Songhua river with contaminated waters)