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The Songhua River Spill: China's Pollution Crisis


By Lisa A. Kirschner and Edward B. Grandy
Parsons Behle & Latimer
2009


The press is often touting China's exploding economy and booming
industrial output. Publicity of the corresponding environmental challenges
has not, however, been as widespread. China's efforts to balance among
other things, the demands of the country's 1.3 billion people and its role
in the world economy with the impacts on the environment have resulted in
some unfortunate consequences. The recent benzene spill from a
petrochemical plant in China's northeastern province of Jilin illustrates
the cross-border, potentially long-term ecological and economic impacts of
the conflict between the country's supercharged development and its
execution of environmental policies.

On November 13, 2005, two fuel towers exploded at Petrochina's facility in
Jilin City, China, a petrochemical factory constructed in the mid-1950s.
The refinery is owned by a subsidiary of the State-owned China National
Petroleum Corporation. Although the explosions at the plant killed five
people, triggered the evacuation of an estimated 10,000 people, and
resulted in the spill of approximately 100 tons of benzene and related
compounds into the Songhua River, approximately ten days passed before
Chinese government officials issued the first public reports of the spill.
In the interim, local bureaucrats reportedly told the people of Harbin,
China (a downstream city of nearly four million) that it was suspending
water distribution to perform routine waterworks maintenance. The initial
misinformation prompted disbelief and, according to some reports,
unfounded rumors that the announcement was in response to predictions of
an earthquake. All the while, the spill continued to migrate downstream
through multiple population centers and towards the Amur River in Russia.
Fishermen continued to fish (and people presumably continued to drink
from) the stretch of river between Jilin City and Harbin having had no
information to suggest they should do otherwise.

The Jilin spill did not simply raise questions about its impacts on
China's Songhua River, which is reported to have already been contaminated
by years of industrial and other impacts. The spill is merely one of a
string of Chinese environmental problems that have accompanied its rapid
growth. Recent press stories illustrate some examples. On December 2,
2005, the Platts International Petrochemical Report reported that an
explosion at a southwestern Chinese chemical plant in late November had
killed one, injured three and triggered warnings of benzene contamination.
According to an Associated Press Report, a late December, 2005 smelter
accident in the Guangdong Province resulted in cadmium contamination of
the Beijiang River. Around the same period of time, newspapers reported on
a frozen pipe rupture in the Henan province resulting in a diesel slick on
the Yellow River. In a January 6, 2006 press release, China's
Environmental Protection Administration reported over 45 water
pollution-related incidents in the previous 80 days, including six "major
disasters." Chinese environmental problems are not limited to industrial
spills; the South China Morning Post reports that since November of 2005,
at least 282 coal miners have perished in a series of mine accidents in
China with a far greater number over the course of the year.

The Jilin spill is, therefore, representative of the fact that
environmental standards may not be keeping pace with economic development.
The sharply rising demand for plastics and other oil-refined products has,
according to the South China Morning Post's December 12, 2005 edition,
resulted in China's double digit output growth between 2003 and 2004. The
breakneck pace of economic growth has, however, come at a price; in the
case of the Jilin spill, that price is not only being paid by the 37
million inhabitants of northeastern China but also by the seven million
people living across the border in Russia.

After the Petrochina explosion became public, the Russian response was
immediate. Officials in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, a border town of
nearly 600,000, constructed dikes on the Kazakevitch channel located
upstream of the city's main water supplies. The situation raised concerns
that the Russian city would have to shut down its central heating systems
(with daytime highs reaching a reported minus 4 F) to prevent benzene and
related chemicals from entering municipal piping systems. In contrast to
its earlier efforts at cover-up, China offered assistance to Russia;
newspaper accounts on or around December 20, 2005, reported that almost
3,000 Chinese nationals were helping construct the dam to try and protect
the Russian city's water supplies. During that same time period, the
Chinese government was also reportedly providing pollution control
equipment to the Russians. Participation by other countries appears to
have been limited. The Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency's Office of International Affairs has stated that China
declined offers from the United States to send a response team. In turn,
the United Nations response team that went to China was reportedly not
allowed to visit the site or take water samples.

Meanwhile, China's international embarrassment tripped a blame-game that
resulted in even more tragedy. Shortly after the Jilin circumstances
became public knowledge, the local Jilin plant manager and China's
environment minister, Xie Zhenhua, reportedly resigned. Ironically, The
South China Morning Post stated (in its December 12, 2005 issue), that the
minister had written a speech chastising Chinese industry for causing 100
years of damage to the environment in 20 years of time. The speech, which
was never given, supposedly recommended that China abandon outdated
technologies and called for an overhaul of China's environmental policy.
Meanwhile, the vice mayor of Jilin, Wang Wei, was found dead in early
December 2005 of an apparent suicide, just days before he was scheduled to
be questioned as part of a government inquiry related to the Jilin spill.
The longer-term environmental consequences of the Chinese spill are
unknown. Environmental and other groups have suggested that the food chain
in the river basin and corresponding region could be affected for some
time. The Times (UK) reported on December 21, 2005 that fishing in the
area could be banned for as long as four years. Other articles have
suggested that the benzene contamination could present a long-term problem
in that it can bioaccumulate in the basin's organisms, remain trapped in
river ice that will melt and result in additional releases, and become
trapped in the river's sediments. The Russian Academy of Sciences is
scheduled to release a preliminary assessment of the nature and extent of
the pollution this spring.

The Jilin spill may also have longer-term implications for China's legal
system. According to some newspapers, businessmen and residents of Harbin
along with professors and students from Peking University and others have
filed class-action type lawsuits against Jilin Petrochemical. Russia may
also seek financial compensation for the impacts associated with the
spill. It is, however, unclear whether these sorts of pressures will
result in any substantive change. According to some sources, the solution
to China's pollution crisis must be multi-faceted and will require, among
other things, better enforcement at the local level and enhanced penalty
provisions in China's environmental laws, changes supposedly called for by
the environmental lobby (including the State's environmental agency) and,
so far, largely thwarted by certain of the country's industrial interests.
While the Chinese government's public commitment to environmental
improvement could be a masquerade, initial response to the Jilin spill
appear positive and consistent with that commitment. China has reportedly
determined to devote over $600 million (U.S.) to improving water supplies
for cities dependent on the polluted Songhua River; that commitment
includes fast-tracking of a $400 million dam and piping project to provide
water for water delivery to Harbin. Additionally, and according to
December 2005 reports from World News Connection, China has added the
Songhua River (where it flows to the Russian Amur River) to China's list
of waters requiring enhanced environmental protection and has started
reviewing the 2,000 industrial plants near the river for any illicit
discharges of sewage.

Clearly, the Chinese motivation to address pollution control may be
essential to the country's well being. China is characterized as a country
with one of the smallest per capita water supplies, many of which are very
polluted. Meanwhile, there is increasing evidence that the Chinese people
are demanding more environmental accountability from their government. If,
as indicated by the World Bank, pollution and environmental degradation
are an albatross for China's economy, there may also be a real financial
incentive for the Chinese to change their ways. Ultimately, public
attention resulting from the Jilin spill may have positive consequences;
there is a chance that the more public these disasters become in China,
the more potential they have to prompt effective environmental policy and
law. It will, however, be some time before the world can see whether the
environmental problems of the Chinese economic boom are meaningfully
addressed.


 

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