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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Toxic Slick Reaches Chinese City

HARBIN, China -- A toxic slick of polluted river water reached the outskirts of one of China's biggest cities on Thursday, nearly two weeks after an explosion at a petrochemical plant upstream.

China said the blast had caused major pollution, spilling benzene compounds into the Songhua River from which Harbin, capital of the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, draws its drinking water. Harbin is home to 9 million people, including 3 million urban residents.

Local officials warned residents to be on the lookout for symptoms of benzene poisoning, which in heavy doses can cause anemia and other blood disorders, as well as kidney and liver damage.

In a sign of how the spill has jarred national nerves about widespread pollution, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao issued instructions demanding safe drinking water be ensured.

In Heilongjiang, Governor Zhang Zuoji ordered hospitals to brace for possible cases of poisoning and promised to drink the first glass of water from city taps once the pollution passed.

According to initial estimates, the explosion resulted in 100 tons of benzene and related products being released into the water, deputy head of the State Environmental Protection Administration, Zhang Lijun, told a news conference.

A provincial government spokesman said the 80 kilometer stretch of pollution passed Harbin's water supply inlet early on Thursday and would flow beyond the city on Saturday.

Water supplies could resume partially as early as Sunday, Xinhua said. Harbin's mayor, Shi Zhongxin, said the water would at first be unsuitable for drinking.

Residents' reactions ranged from stoic acceptance to anxiety, but there were few signs of panic in Harbin, where most residents continued to work and shops and restaurants remained open.

"It's worrying because it may not have a strong smell or color, so you can't tell when it's gone," said Hong Shan, a retired official exercising beside the river. "It's up to the government to keep us informed. We can't tell ourselves."

Commentators in Beijing and further afield condemned the "lies" told before the authorities revealed what had really happened. A paper in Harbin itself tried to play down the crisis. Farmers in surrounding areas mostly said they drew water from wells, and so were not panicked by the spill.

"We've stored up enough water to get by, but I don't know if this pollution can seep into the underground water," said Gao Erling, from Sifangtai, a village near Harbin.

The explosion happened at a chemicals plant in neighboring Jilin province, about 370 kilometers from Harbin, on Nov. 13. The plant was only a few hundred meters from the Songhua, but at the time officials there warned only of air and ground contamination, not water pollution. Five people were killed in the blast.

The Jilin plant, Jilin PetroChemical, had insisted it was not responsible for the pollution, state media said. But the deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corp., Jilin PetroChemical's parent company, apologized to Harbin residents.

China's environment administration said on Thursday that the plant should be held responsible for the toxic spill, Xinhua said.

The pollutants had already passed through the smaller city of Songyuan, between Jilin and Harbin, where water supplies had been partially cut for seven days.

A Harbin environmental protection group recently issued a report documenting widespread chemical pollution along the Songhua River.