Toxic chemical leak in northeast sparks panic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 July, 2010, 12:00am

Panic swept the city of Jilin in the northeast yesterday after toxic chemicals leaked into the Songhua River from a chemical factory warehouse toppled by floodwaters.

Residents scrambled for bottled water as supplies to parts of the city of 4.3 million people were cut off.

More than 1,000 barrels, containing at least 160 tonnes of liquid chlorotrimethylsilane, were washed down the flood-swollen river. The Jilin provincial government said chlorotrimethylsilane was highly toxic and could burn the skin and irritate the lungs.

When mixed with water the chemical reacts violently to produce hydrochloric acid, which in concentrated form can burn the lungs, skin and eyes.

A witness said he had seen countless smoking blue barrels floating on the river. 'The river flow was fast, but it still took about three hours to see all the barrels pass by,' he said. 'All the onlookers on the river bank gagged at the strong, pungent smell. I still have a headache even though I left the scene four hours ago.'

The incident will revive memories of a massive leak of benzene into the Songhua five years ago which forced the suspension of water supplies to millions downstream and caused friction with Russia since the river flows into the Heilong, or Amur, river that marks the countries' border.

Local media outlets were ordered not to report yesterday's leak until Xinhua released the official version of events, and Jilin city publicity office spokesman Zhang Ke denied last night that the river's water had been contaminated.

'Our water supply was only cut off in part of our city,' Zhang said. 'It was not caused by any water contamination, but by maintenance work and a regular check-up after the flooding reports.'

Xinhua said the barrels were washed out of the warehouse at the Xin Ya Qiang Chemical Plant, in the city's Yongji county, when it was destroyed by floods. It said emergency workers were trying to recover the containers, and had so far picked up 350. Environmental protection authorities were closely monitoring water quality, it said.

The provincial government said the toxic leak was caused by an extraordinary flood in Yongji. It said it was doing everything possible to stop it spreading.

People in Harbin expressed concern about the quality of the Songhua's water. Jilin residents rushed to supermarkets and stores to buy bottled water after the authorities cut off water supplies to parts of the city at noon.

Staff from two supermarkets said all their bottled water had sold out in four hours. 'We were very busy from noon to 4pm, with so many customers snapping up bottled water here,' one employee said. 'They told us that our tap water had been contaminated by chemicals.'

Residents said they had seen the contamination at first hand.

'The water supply was cut today, so we went out and found the water level of the river was surging and the water was turbid and muddy,' one resident said. 'There were a lot of blue chemical containers flowing past, and the smell was awful.'

Jilin authorities tried to cover up the 2005 benzene leak at first, but it soon escalated into one of the mainland's worst pollution incidents in decades, causing massive contamination and affecting around four million people downstream in Harbin , Heilongjiang . Russian cities downstream were also threatened, and the then foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing , apologised to his Russian counterpart.

Dozens of central and local government officials were punished, and Xie Zhenhua , the then director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, was sacked.

A Yongji county villager said Jilin had been lashed by torrential rains over the past few days, with rainfall especially heavy since Tuesday.

'I saw two-thirds of Kouqian township, where the Xin Ya Qing Chemical Plant is located, covered by floodwater overnight,' he said. 'The Jilin municipal government blocked the Jilin Bridge, which connects the city to Yongji county, this afternoon because they were afraid it might be toppled by floodwater.'

The provincial hydrology department said Yongji had faced serious flooding for centuries. Local authorities said power supplies, traffic and telecommunications in the county had been cut since Tuesday night.

Xinhua said more than 200 emergency workers had been sent to Kouqian to reach 30,000 residents thought to have been trapped after a nearby reservoir overflowed.

Local media said telecommunications in nearby Panshi county, Huadian county and other low-lying parts of the province had been disrupted because many pylons had been toppled by floodwater.

The nation is struggling with the worst floods in a decade. They have caused at least 176 billion yuan (HK$202 billion) in economic losses, and authorities have warned of more to come. The floods have killed at least 823 people, and 437 are missing, flood control authorities say.

Additional reporting by Laura Zhou

Panic in Jilin

With taps running dry amid the toxic chemical spill, residents rushed to buy bottled water

The city has a population of over: 4.3m

Bad memory

What happened in 2005

Nov 13 Explosion at factory casuses 80 kilometre slick of benzene to leak into Songhua River

Nov 18 PetroChina subsidiary notifies central government and Heilongjiang of leak

Nov 21 Harbin, city of nearly 4 million, turns off taps for 4 days 'for repairs'

Nov 22 Russia notified, as Songhua flows into Heilong river (Amur in Russia). Khabarovsk braces for impact

Nov 23 State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) admits serious pollution

Nov 25 Jilin provincial officials apologise to Heilongjiang officials

Nov 27 Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing apologises to Russia

Dec 2 Xie Zhenhua forced to quit as SEPA head