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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spill Reaches City, Water Called Fine

APEmergency workers preparing to measure how fast the water of the Amur River is flowing Thursday in Khabarovsk.
KHABAROVSK — A toxic spill that poisoned drinking water for millions of Chinese flowed into the city of Khabarovsk on Thursday, but authorities said the concentration of pollutants was no longer dangerous.

Residents, however, remained worried, and Governor Viktor Ishayev appealed to them "to keep calm."

"We have done everything we could to safeguard and filter the water, and we do not plan to cut off water to Khabarovsk," Ishayev said.

The slick, which extends for 180 kilometers, entered the city limits toward evening, said Natalya Zimina, a spokeswoman for the regional administration.

She said pollution levels in the Amur River were within the norm and that water supplies to the city of 580,000 would be maintained.

On Nov. 13, a chemical plant explosion in China's northeast spewed about 90 metric tons of benzene, nitrobenzene and other toxins into the Songhua River, causing the city of Harbin to shut down running water to 3.8 million people for five days.

The slick had been floating downriver and entered Russian territory last week, sparking increasing alarm in Khabarovsk, where residents in the last few hours rushed to stock up on drinking water and filled up their apartments with water to wash and cook with.

A telephone hot line has been flooded by calls from worried residents, such as shop assistant Irina Zakonnikova. Her small apartment, which she shares with her husband and two teenage children, was crammed with bottles, pots and other receptacles filled with water. Even the bathtub was full.

The family stopped using tap water on Thursday, despite the fact that callers to the hot line were being assured that it was "absolutely safe" to wash and cook with running water.

"We are trying to keep ourselves from panicking, but of course there is fear," she said.

Tons of carbon are being used to filter out contamination from water supplies taken from the Amur River, which normally provides the city on the border with China with all its water.

The pollutant slick could take four days or more to pass through Khabarovsk, but experts warn the ecological effects will be long-lasting.

Benzene and nitrobenzene are heavier than water and they are settling on the river bottom or sticking to the ice. Come spring, melting ice will pollute not just the river water, but also the banks, said Yevgeny Rozhkov, an engineer with the Far East Meteorological Agency.

The regional administration has banned fishing on the Amur — possibly for up to two years — and residents such as Zakonnikova have filled their freezers with frozen fish.

But some people are flouting the ban despite the health risks. Galina Denisova, a 69-year-old retiree, was standing at a bus stop in subfreezing winter temperatures hawking fish.

She said her husband had caught the fish in the Amur that morning.

"I have a small pension, so I eat freshly caught fish myself and make money from selling it," she said.