The accident in China's frigid, northeastern industrial belt was well covered in the local and national media, as TV news aired dramatic footage. Officials moved fast and evacuated roughly 40,000 residents living near the plant. At midnight, 10 hours after the blasts, the vice party secretary of the plant, which is owned by New York Stock Exchange-listed PetroChina Co., announced that people shouldn't worry about the orange cloud. "The explosion," he said, "did not cause toxic air pollution."
He didn't say anything about water. Indeed, neither the company nor government officials mentioned the facility's tanks of benzene, nitrobenzene and a related chemical called aniline, located near the banks of the Songhua River. The blast ruptured the tanks, dumping 100 tons of those chemicals into the river. "If there was a leak of the tanks," says an executive of a foreign chemical company who was briefed by officials in Beijing on the events at Jilin, "it would be an emergency. But this was a flood."
Within hours, a toxic slick that grew to 80 km long had started to float down the Songhua. Jilin officials opened a reservoir to dilute the contaminants and instructed factories to avoid using river water. They also notified the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) in Beijing, which coordinated the response. SEPA has issued conflicting statements about its subsequent actions. In a Nov. 24 statement it said that it "quickly" sent an expert team to Jilin and neighboring Heilongjiang province, which lies downstream. But in the same statement, SEPA said that Jilin officials didn't notify their counterparts in Heilongjiang until five days after the blast, on Nov. 18. The central question—When were all the relevant authorities informed of the massive chemical leak?—is still unanswered. And residents of both provinces were deliberately kept in the dark. "There are many ways to spread information," explained SEPA's vice director, Zhang Lijun, at a press conference last week. "Notifying the people is one way, and notifying local governments and affected enterprises is another way."
Downriver from the plant by 350 km lies China's eighth-largest city, Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang. Most of the surrounding province draws its drinking water from wells; in contrast, Harbin's downtown population of 3.5 million gets 90% of its water directly from the Songhua. As the slick approached, Harbin's officials announced on Nov. 21 that they would shut off the city's water for reasons of pipe maintenance. "There was no way the people were going believe that," says Xu Shijian, a 77-year-old retired Communist Party official. Like most residents, Xu stocked up on water, and many shops in the city sold out in hours.
Less than 24 hours later, Harbin came clean. A second statement, issued at 2 a.m. on Nov. 22, acknowledged that toxins had "perhaps polluted the water." At a meeting on that same day held on a first-floor conference room at Harbin's Peace Village Hotel, according to someone who was present, Heilongjiang Governor Zhang Zuoji explained to 400 local and provincial officials why Harbin had first deceived its population: his bosses at the State Council in Beijing hadn't approved an announcement on the leak. Unable to report the real reason, he said, the city of Harbin had "created an explanation." Only after the people of Harbin panicked did the State Council approve the second, truthful statement.
In other words, while China was experiencing one of its worst industrial accidents in years, the official reaction was to keep the truth under wraps—while millions faced exposure to toxic chemicals. "There is an information-disclosure gap in China," says Jennifer Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "A public right to information isn't there."
Benzene, nitrobenzene and aniline, used to produce explosives, fungicides, dyes and shoe polish, are nasty substances to have in a river. Benzene and nitrobenzene can affect the nervous system, and long-term exposure to benzene can cause cancer and chromosomal aberrations. With luck, the problem will simply drift downriver and dissipate without doing much harm. The Songhua eventually flows across the Russian border, joining the Amur River and emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk near Vladivostok. China waited at least a week after the explosion to notify Russia about the toxins. The two countries are now conferring, but Russian politicians have complained. Viktor Shudegov, Chairman of the ecology, education and science committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, has suggested that Russia sue China. SEPA says the slick will reach Russia around Dec. 8.
Yet even if the main body of the slick disperses into the sea, the danger may not be over. Experts such as Chan King-ming, an associate professor of biochemistry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, say the chemicals may seep into the banks of the Songhua and even into the area's groundwater, which could contaminate wells. And the river has started to freeze: the chemicals could be trapped in the ice until spring. "They'll need a long-term monitoring program, from this November until next summer," says Chan.
In Harbin, the biggest panic came on the day the government announced it would shut off the water without saying why. When the truth came out a day later—in what the official Xinhua news agency admitted was a "U-turn"—the city calmed and the emergency response was efficient. Government engineers dug up to 100 wells around Harbin and plenty of bottled water was shipped in. Chinese newspapers jumped on the story and openly accused the government of a cover-up. "The panic and chain reaction caused by the failure to make information public," reported the Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post, "will do great harm to the government's credibility."
The authorities seemed to have learned a lesson. When a smaller petrochemical factory in Chongqing blew up last week, resulting in another benzene leak (and forcing the evacuation of 6,000 residents), the government announced the news almost immediately. On Saturday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made a surprise visit to Harbin to thank paramilitary troops distributing water-filtration kits in the city. "We must not allow the masses to be short of water," he said.
It's no secret that China's red-hot industrial growth has inflicted woeful harm to the environment. Water supplies are particularly at risk. "Water is the biggest environmental problem in China," says Turner of the China Environment Forum. At a conference in Beijing last month, Chinese Vice Minister of Construction Qiu Baoxing said the country is "facing a water crisis more severe and urgent than any other country in the world." In Harbin, there were obvious signs that the incident had frayed the people's faith in their rulers. Trains and planes out of the city were jammed. Near the village of Yuliu, downriver from Harbin, someone took it on himself to post a homemade sign near the river. "The water has poison," it read. "Don't drink it or fish in it." To help restore a sense of trust, Heilongjiang's top official, party secretary Song Fatang, announced that once the toxic slick has passed the city and the water supply has resumed, "I'll have the first mouthful." But it isn't just China's rivers that need cleaning up. So does the process by which authorities tell citizens the truth about risks to their health.