On November 13, a petrochemical plant in the northeast Chinese city of Jilin experienced a massive explosion which released a reported 100 metric tons of benzene and nitrobenzene in the Songhua River. The blast killed five people and injured 70. The spill contaminated the drinking water supply for Jilin and all downstream users in Heilongjiang province, including the city of Harbin (pop. 3.8 million) which has seen its water shut off for four days. In freezing weather, people are lining up to fill pots and buckets with water from trucks.
Harbin's water is expected to be back soon as the spill flushes downstream. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the spill has turned into an international incident since the Songhua River flows into the Amur River in Russia. Consequently, the Russians have been alerted to the fact that their pristine water supply will soon be contaminated with Chinese benzene. Notably, the city of Khabarovsk, with more than 500,000 residents, is preparing for a water outage.
Chinese Foreign Minister Li has expressed profound apologies to Moscow, explaining that the spill is "fraught with enormous damage to the natural environment both of China and Russia." Deputy general manager Zeng Yukang of the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC) also expressed apologies. Expect there to be numerous additional offerings of contrition in the weeks it will take to flush the spill out to sea.
Since the accident occurred two weeks ago, one has to wonder why it took so long for the Chinese government to acknowledge the fact that there was a problem. The blast and resultant spill happened on November 13, yet the announcement of benzene contaminating the Songhua River didn't come until November 23. Apparently, there was no alert, no disaster notification, and no emergency declared. Two days before they finally admitted to the contamination, the water was cut off to Harbin, citing water-main maintenance.
It seems clear that the Chinese only raised the alarm when they realized that the spill was going to Russia and, therefore, any attempts to hide the disaster were futile. And, I firmly believe that they attempted to cover up or, at least, downplay the accident and the spill.
So, where's the international media on this story? How come no reporters are asking questions about a Chinese cover up of a major environmental disaster? And, while I'm at it, where are the environmental protesters? How come Greenpeace isn't marching in front of the Chinese Embassy? Where are the UN monitoring teams? And, above all, why wasn't there some attempt to isolate and clean up the spill?
If the event were to occur in the U.S., those questions would be asked by somebody other than a blogger.
Companion post at Interested-Participant.