Thu, Dec 01, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Environmentalist warns toxins will linger till next year

AGENCIES , BEIJING

An environmentalist warned that toxins from an industrial spill will stay locked in river ice until winter breaks next year, but officials who restored water supplies to Harbin City insist the danger it posed to residents is ended.

Running water was turned back on in Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang Province, on Sunday after supplies were switched off for five days because of the Nov. 13 explosion that spewed chemicals -- including cancer-causing benzene -- into the Songhua River.

The vice director of Harbin's health inspection bureau, Xiu Tinggong, said on Tuesday the water was safe to use and drink. Officials had earlier expressed concern that water left in the city's underground pipes for five days may not be safe.

"Everybody can rest assured that the water is safe," Xiu said on local television.

Many residents were still wary.

"We still can't be sure that it's safe," said bank worker Sun Ning as she loaded a shopping cart with bottled water for her household. "It's not that we don't trust the government, but we are still not totally at ease."

Concerns also were high in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, where the toxic soup from Harbin was headed after flowing into the larger Heilong River, called the Amur in Russian. Chinese officials have said the spill was expected to reach Khabarovsk around Dec. 10-12 -- or sooner.

A top Russian environmental official tried to reassure the population on Tuesday by drinking a glass of water on television.

But the World Wide Fund for Nature said the river faced "ecological catastrophe" from the 80km-long slick of chemicals floating toward the Russian border from China.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invited experts from the UN to assess the chemical spill.

The team of four will come from several UN agencies, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Development Program, and will probably begin testing water along the Songhua River in the next few days, said Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman in Beijing.

The international experts will assess the continued presence and effects of the pollutants that poured into the river.

"They will provide technical expertise in the areas of water contamination, chemical contamination, and the public health implications of such an incident," Wadia said yesterday.

The team will include Russian experts, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

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