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. Questions Linger After Songhua River Spill

By Edward Lanfranco
Beijing (UPI) Jan 25, 2006
The head of China's environmental agency gave an interim progress report on the condition of the Songhua River Tuesday, leaving several key issues unanswered.

Zhou Shengxian, minister of the State Environmental Protection Administration, sought to assure both domestic and international audiences the toxic spill last November in northeastern China of an estimated 100 tons of chemical substances known to pose serious health hazards to humans is not a problem at present.

Despite considerable efforts to bolster confidence in the job it is doing, the Chinese government has remained silent on many critical questions for its citizens' well-being.

Asked what the total cost of the clean-up efforts were, and how much SEPA predicted the total cost will be, Zhou told United Press International, "I believe at the end of the second phase, all findings, including cost, will be known and I will make it available to the media."

The minister gave an almost identical response later in the news conference about long-term health and medical response needs.

The response indicate that ongoing efforts remain a work in progress.

SEPA announced Tuesday the formation of a three-step strategy "to control water pollution in an effective way." The first step is to enhance monitoring and control, ensuring the safety of drinking water for local communities along the Songhua.

The second step is in two parts. Part one is the emergency response ending in March 2006 while the second involves mid-term action going until the end of October. Both are designed "to carry out timely ecological impact assessment of the water pollution accident on the Songhua River."

The environmental agency together with the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Construction, Ministry of Science and Technology, Chinese Academy of Science plus Jilin and Heilongjiang provincial governments has launched a program titled "Research Project on Ecological Impact Assessment of the Major Water Pollution Accident in the Songhua River and its Countermeasures."

The third phase calls for initiating full scale mid- and long-term plans for prevention and control of water pollution on the Songhua based on the "Comment-soliciting Meeting on the 11th Five Year Plan for the Prevention and Control of Water Pollution in the Songhua River Basin" which was held in Harbin on Jan. 6-7.

In Zhou's opening remarks, he said plans derived from four points in the "Decision of the State Council on Implementing the Scientific View of Development and Enhancing Environmental Protection."

Point one is the prevention and control of water pollution of the Songhua River, integrating it as "a priority of persistent efforts aiming at practical effect for national pollution control of river basins."

Second was government adherence to a "people-oriented principle regarding public access to clean drinking water as one of its priorities."

The third point aims at "the environmental monitoring system and capacity building for law enforcement into the SEPA agenda."

The State Council's fourth point promised, "we will clarify the responsibilities and implement an accountability system, under which provincial authorities will be accountable for the plans, tasks, objectives, financial resources, as well as the responsibilities."

China's Cabinet isn't willing or able at this juncture make statements concerning state-owned corporate responsibility in the Songhua River incident, which was sparked on Nov. 13 when an explosion at the Jilin Petrochemical facility owned by the China National Petroleum Corp. kil ed five and forced thousands to flee the city of Jilin in Jilin province.

UPI asked why Xie Zhenhua was asked to resign because of his handling of the Songhua River spill, yet the head of the China National Petroleum Corporation, Chen Geng, still retains his position.

"Regarding Mr. Xie's resignation I believe the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China as well as the State Council has made public their notifications on this issue," Zhou said. "Regarding the responsibility and association of the explosion with the CNPC, the central government attaches great significance to this issue. It has established specialized investigation teams."

These teams were "currently working very hard" Zhou said, adding "when their findings and results are available they will make public to the people through the media."

Zhou told reporters there were 21,000 chemical plants along riverbanks in China. He said half were on either the Yangtze or Yellow Rivers, the country's two main and most populated arteries.

The head of SEPA promised: "We will basically establish an emergency system for environmental safety in two or three years."

Source: United Press International

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