China Fires Environment Chief as It Deals With Tainted River Fallout

Times Staff Writer

The long-term environmental impact of last month’s chemical explosion in northern China that left millions without safe drinking water remains to be seen. But the political fallout has begun.

Beijing sacked its top environment official Friday in an effort to show accountability for the mishandling of the crisis. More heads are expected to roll, possibly including local party leaders in Jilin province where the petrochemical plant accident spilled 100 tons of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals into the Songhua River.

Residents of Harbin, a city of 3.8 million downstream from Jilin, were not informed about the contamination until 10 days after the accident. The 50-mile toxic slick is still making its way downstream toward the Russian border, forcing more towns and villages to shut off their taps and switch to bottled water.


Some observers say the Harbin water crisis illustrates a bigger problem: China’s bureaucratic paralysis during emergencies.

“This is a systemwide failure,” said Jiang Wenran, acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. “The system itself is not set up to respond quickly. At every level there was confusion and delay.”

Xie Zhenhua, chief of the State Environmental Protection Administration since 1993, took the fall, partly because he sat at the top of the chain of command.

Shortly before Xie’s resignation was announced, his agency lashed out at Jilin officials for failing to report the disaster in a timely fashion. The official China Daily quoted Wang Yuqing, vice minister of the environmental agency, as saying that, for about four days after the Nov. 13 explosion, the agency received no information on the accident, “losing the best opportunity” to control the pollution.

Jiang, a Harbin native who has done extensive research on the incident, said authorities in the provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang, where Harbin is located, contacted Beijing seeking directions. The scale of the disaster was such that they had no authority to act independently of the central government.

“When the responsibility reached them, [environmental agency officials] were not able to make a quick decision,” Jiang said. “They were telling the Jilin and Heilongjiang officials to find some kind of excuses.”

A day before it would be too late to warn the public to prepare for the city’s tap water supply to be cut, Harbin officials announced that they needed to do maintenance work on the pipes. What has been termed a “well-intentioned lie” actually helped set off panic, prompting skeptical residents to hoard bottled water and, in some cases, flee the city.

The cover-up ended only after Premier Wen Jiabao intervened and said the public must be told the truth, Jiang said. It remains unclear when Wen first became aware of the contamination.

Even without Wen’s intervention, China’s environmental problems are becoming increasingly hard to hide.

The Songhua is an international river, flowing through two Chinese provinces and emptying into the Heilong River on the Chinese side and becoming the Amur in Russia.

With a potential diplomatic fiasco on its hands, Beijing last weekend issued an apology to Moscow, a rare act, and offered assistance in monitoring the pollution and filtering the drinking water supply.

China had learned its lesson the hard way. Two years ago it came under heavy international criticism for denying the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome until SARS had already spread beyond its borders. To show it meant business then, the central government fired the health minister and the Beijing mayor.

The decision to again remove a high-level official is another sign that Beijing is trying to regain public trust.

“This is a great move by the central leadership, it will bring the issue of accountability into sharper focus,” said Dali L. Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. “My sense is further changes are coming. We are not seeing the end of this story yet.”

It’s possible the choice for the new environmental chief is part of a bigger leadership shuffle, Yang said. Zhou Shengxian was the former forestry director and spent the bulk of his career in the northwestern province of Ningxia. President Hu Jintao, who served many years in China’s impoverished west, has been promoting leaders with a similar background to shore up his populist image against that of his predecessor, who surrounded himself with more elitist players, known as the Shanghai clique.

Politics aside, observers say China can no longer afford to just pay lip service to the country’s mounting environmental problems.

According to the Ministry of Water Resources, an estimated 300 million residents in rural areas do not have access to safe drinking water and as much as 34% of the rural population drink water contaminated by industrial pollutants.

Another recent report says about 70% of China’s rivers are contaminated, due to excessive economic development, illegal dumping and inadequate oversight.

Factories and pharmaceutical companies have been discharging harmful waste into the Songhua for years, said Pacific Environment, an environmental organization based in San Francisco. The group has called on China to publish a list of all polluting factories along the river and the toxic compounds they release.

After taps in the Harbin area were turned back on last weekend, the provincial governor did as he promised. He took the first sip to show it was safe to drink. Some environmentalists say that the water may seem harmless but that benzene is difficult to dissolve and can remain in the sediment for years.

“The governor can make a symbolic gesture by drinking the tap water, I’m sure he won’t drink it when he goes home,” said Wen Bo, Pacific Environment’s representative in Beijing. “He can afford to buy mineral water. But ordinary people, especially the rural poor, they depend on the river to irrigate the fields and feed the cattle. Their lives will be impacted the most.”