Toxic slick heads for Russia
Russian-Chinese Border, Russian Federation — Eighteen days after an explosion at a chemical factory in Jilin Provence launched a huge 80 kilometer (50 mile) slick of cancer-causing benzene down the Songhua River, and nine days after the Chinese government admitted to suppressing the news, activists from Greenpeace Russia are in place and awaiting the slick to slide across the border.
Millions of Chinese people who rely on the Songhua for their drinking water have had to rely on bottled water and emergency supplies instead. Our activists are keeping a close eye on Russia’s Emergency Ministry, Emercom, to make sure that sampling and public information are accurate and that no expense is spared in protecting human health and the environment.
Neither Russia nor China enjoy much of a reputation for openness when it comes to industrial disasters. The recent description of the initial cover-up by Zhang Zuoji, Governor of Heilonggjiang Provence as a "benevolent lie" has done little to help.
But will it be any different in the Russian Federation? Greenpeace’s man on the ground, Alexi, says: "On paper and in their reports they are pretty much set up to meet the slick. However, we in the area say that they are under-staffed. The amount of activated carbon -- which can be used to filter benzene from the water -- is insufficient. Not to mention that the way they take samples -- using a helicopter and a bucket on a rope -- raises a lot of questions."
"There are still many unknown facts, like exactly how much benzene and other toxic substances really spilled into the Songhau; or how the freezing temperatures and ice-cover on the rivers will effect the slick; or whether or not it will still be a slick or a more dispersed plume. But Emercom and local scientists, probably also to avoid panic, are saying that the slick will not reach Russia at all."
Both Emercom and some local scientists believe, or hope, that the larger part of the slick will turn into the Chinese side of the river, but not all of it, so they are preparing some safety measures.
The city of Khabarovsk on the Amur has a population of some 800,000 people. Other large river cities include Amursk (about 70,000 people) and Komsomolsk-on-Amur (up to 300,000 people). There are also many villages and small towns along the river. To a various extent and depending on the response of the Russian authorities and influence of icing the slick may affect some 1,200,000 or so people.
But the myths and rumours are already starting to build around the nearly invisible benzene’s ghostly trip down river. At the moment it is believed to be passing the Chinese city of Jiamusi, a city about two thirds of the way to the Russian border from Harbin, the first Chinese city to have its water supply cut.
According to Alexi, there is a dam near Khabarovsk which dampens water flow. So in order to channel the polluted water away from the Khabarovsk water supply inlets, the authorities are considering blowing up the 400-million rouble (12-million euro) dam.
Already, on November 25th the Khabarovsk authorities turned off the tap water because it was rumoured a day earlier they found benzene in Amur. Later the authorities tried to calm the population down explaining the turn-off was for technical reasons only.
Rumours also abound that another pollutant heptyl had been found in the water. "This news was made hotter by the Emercom spokesman who said that this information was closed" says Alexi. "Oleg Mitvol, from the Government, who was there at the time demonstratively drank some tap water to show that it is safe. But, even that backfired, people started saying that he had eaten lots of adsorbents beforehand and that he did this because he had gotten a phone call from Moscow telling him to stop any panic even at the price of his own health."
So added to certain danger of benzene we can add the legacy of years of misinformation and no information, a heady cocktail of Government incompetence and intransigence.
We'll do our best to bear witness and continue to apply pressure for full monitoring over the next few months and well into the spring thaw, but also to promote honesty and independence in the battle to provide a wary public with information that they can have confidence in.