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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chinese City Shuts Off Water After Toxic Spill

BEIJING -- A Chinese city of 3.8 million people closed schools and was trucking in drinking water Wednesday after shutting down its water system following a chemical plant explosion that officials said polluted a nearby river with toxic benzene.

The announcement of the shutdown in Harbin in China's frigid northeast set off panicked buying this week of bottled water, milk and soft drinks that left supermarket shelves bare.

The water system was shut down at midnight local time Tuesday and probably will stay out of service for four days, said an official of the city's Municipal Water Supply Group. He would give only his surname, Chen.

An explosion on Nov. 13 at a chemical plant in the nearby city of Jilin left the Songhua River, Harbin's main water source, polluted with benzene, a toxic, flammable liquid, the government said.

The water pollution stretches some 80 kilometers, with benzene levels at some places 30 times the acceptable standard, the official Xinhua News Agency said.

Based on the speed of the river's current, the pollution is expected to reach Harbin early Thursday morning and be gone by Saturday morning, Xinhua said.

Russian television reports said Wednesday that concern was growing over the pollution threat in the border city of Khabarovsk, about 700 kilometers down river from Harbin on the Songhua.

Russia's environmental protection agency said on Wednesday that the chemicals could reach water collection points for the city, just over the border from China, by Saturday, adding that it had asked the Russian Foreign Ministry to contact China about what pollutants were involved.

Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying Russia would take all necessary steps to protect people in Khabarovsk.

"But so as to make sure these measures are effective, we need more information from the Chinese. We need to more accurately know the make-up of the pollutants," he said.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Tuesday that China always took care of other countries' border water interests.

The pollution should be diluted by the inflows of several major tributaries after it flows past Harbin, Xinhua said, citing an official with China's State Environmental Protection Administration whose name was not given.

Though local officials denied it, water supplies were also cut in at least one district of Songyuan in neighboring Jilin province, about 150 kilometers southwest of Harbin.

A doctor from the Ningjiang District Central Hospital and a teacher from Ningjiang No. 1 Middle School said the water had been cut off for between five to seven days already. Both refused to give their names when reached by telephone.

Another Songyuan resident from a separate district said his neighborhood's water supply had been uninterrupted because it came from a well, not the river.

Asked whether there were any obvious signs of pollution along the river, he said no. "It's frozen," said Zhang Jiajun, the owner of a private English-language school in Songyuan. "If its polluted, it's underneath."

In Harbin, city officials tried to downplay the crisis. "The provincial government is sending in bottled drinking water from other cities," Chen said.

"It must be very inconvenient for the public -- taking showers or flushing toilets. But this is an emergency, and it will only last a few days," he said.

Water service was reinstated for about 12 hours on Wednesday after experts concluded that the benzene would not reach the city until Thursday, the city government said on its web site.

There were no reports of anyone falling ill after drinking polluted water but 15 hospitals were ordered to be ready to treat possible poisoning cases, said a man who answered the phone in the press office of the city government. He refused to give his name.

The explosion in Jilin killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others. It was blamed on human error in a tower that processed benzene.

The disaster highlighted the precarious state of China's water supplies. The country's 1.3 billion people and the factories and farms of its booming economy compete for scarce supplies, while the government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted.

Due to its vast population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person.

 The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that emergency and environmental officials were in contact with their Chinese counterparts to establish the scope of the pollution in order to take preventive measures in Russia.

In what appeared to be indirect criticism of the Chinese government's delay in providing full details of the incident, the ministry said that Moscow had repeatedly urged neighboring countries to provide it with information about accidents affecting Russia "in a timely fashion."

(AP, Reuters)