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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chemical Levels Increase in Amur River in Far East

APFishermen packing up after police barred them from fishing on the Amur.
KHABAROVSK -- Specialists have detected an increase in benzene in the Amur River, a regional expert said Monday, as the city of about 580,000 people braces for the arrival of the toxic mix of chemicals that spilled from an upriver Chinese factory last month.

The region's governor, meanwhile, said authorities might have to shut down the city's central heating system, a move that could prove disastrous in a region where daytime temperatures on Monday were hovering around minus 20 degrees Celsius and where residences are overwhelmingly warmed by water heated by central facilities.

Officials say the concentration of the spill has dispersed somewhat since the Nov. 13 incident, which forced officials in the Chinese city of Harbin to shut down municipal water supplies.

Still, Alexander Gavrilov, director of the Dalgidrometa monitoring agency, said Amur River samples taken about 235 kilometers southwest of Khabarovsk are now showing an increase in levels of benzene, a potentially cancer-causing chemical. The chemicals could reach the city limits as early as Wednesday.

"The level of pollution in the water has increased to the maximum allowable concentration near the Chinese right bank of the Amur," Gavrilov said. "There's no need to overdramatize the situation."

The spill has strained China's relations with Moscow and stoked Russian suspicions about China and its industrial boom. Though authorities say they do not expect to shut down Khabarovsk's water supplies, many residents are preparing for the worst -- buying up bottled water and filling canisters from the taps and from outdoor ground wells.

Regional emergency officials said they had nearly completed two dams to block off two river channels along the Amur's left bank -- across the river from the city.

Governor Viktor Ishayev said in televised comments Monday that authorities might have to shut down the central heating plant to prevent the chemicals from entering municipal pipes.

"We have not ruled out shutting off the hot water," he said.

Ishayev, who earlier said the region's residents had become "China's hostages," again blamed China for not providing complete information about what was spilled into the Amur's upriver tributaries.

Scientists say residents are still at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.

"China has directed us only toward nitrobenzene and benzol, but we are seeing in the river other [chemicals] that are no less dangerous," said Lyubov Kondratyeva, a water expert at the local branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.