Toxic metal spill may be worst in decades

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2012, 12:00am
 

Environmental experts say the toxic metal contamination of a tributary of the Pearl River in Guangxi may evolve into the mainland's worst chemical spill in decades.

Local officials have been accused of lax management and secrecy in dealing with the contamination.

As much as 20 tonnes of cadmium, one of the most toxic of metals, may have been discharged into the Longjiang River early last month, according to a member of an emergency task force set up by Guangxi authorities to handle the spill, China News Service reported yesterday.

Xu Zhencheng, a leading member of the task force and a researcher affiliated with the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said at a closed government meeting on Sunday that while seven tonnes of cadmium had already been neutralised by the dumping of hundreds of tonnes of chemical powder, there were still 13 tonnes of the heavy metal pollutant left undissolved in the river more than two weeks after the spill was first spotted.

By comparison, the country's total discharge of carcinogenic cadmium in 2010 was about 30 tonnes, according to the annual environmental statistics report published by the ministry in December.

In 2005, an illegal release of 6.3 tonnes of cadmium caused a massive spill on the Beijiang, or North River - a major tributary of the Pearl - choking freshwater supplies for at least 100,000 people in northern Guangdong and sparking a pollution scare in major cities along the river, including Guangzhou.

In the latest disaster, metal-pollution experts were appalled by the first official estimate of the scale of the spill, decrying local authorities for what they said was routine sloppiness and lax management of toxic-metal smelters, as well as secrecy in dealing with the contamination.

They noted that key questions surrounding the spill remain, including the government's inability to identify and locate the exact source of the contamination, which some experts say is key to preventing a further escalation of the crisis.

The cadmium slick, spanning at least 100 kilometres, is flowing slowly towards Liuzhou city along the Longjiang River near the city's main water source and continues to threaten freshwater supplies for the city's 3.5 million people.

Despite repeated government reassurances about the safety of drinking water, tens of thousands of residents and fishermen living along the river have grown impatient and expressed increasing frustration at the local authorities' inability to control the contamination.

In an apparent move to ease mounting public anger, Guangxi environmental protection officials announced on Monday night that seven people, mostly chemical plant executives, were detained for their alleged roles in the illegal dumping of cadmium into the Longjiang River. But instead of listing the names of the suspects and the involved smelters, only one little-known metal-material provider was identified.

Professor Dai Tagen, a metal-pollution expert at Central South University's School of Geoscience and Environmental Engineering in Changsha, Hunan, said it was extremely rare for such a large amount of cadmium to be discharged into a river.

'It is apparently a glaring failure by local authorities to let the massive spill happen in the first place, not to mention the embarrassing fact that they cannot even pin down the pollution sources after two weeks,' he said.

35

The number of years the harmful effects of cadmium can last once absorbed into the body. It can cause cancer and failure of the nervous system

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