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The Songhua River Spill: China's Pollution Crisis
Spring 2006
ABA Natural Resources & Environment



by Lisa A. Kirschner and Edward B. Grandy

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.