Bloomberg News

Toxic Spill in South China Halted Before Tainting City Water

January 30, 2012

(Adds apology by mayor in third paragraph.)

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Officials in southern China said they’ve contained a toxic metal spill that threatened water for 1.5 million people and contaminated a tributary of the Pearl River, which supplies Hong Kong and Macau.

Crews in the city of Liuzhou used ships to spread canvas across the Longjiang River and stop the cadmium, China National Radio reported today. Tests done at 6 p.m. yesterday at Liuzhou’s water plants met national standards, it said.

The cadmium spill, first detected Jan. 15 upstream in the city of Hechi, has killed fish and prompted panic buying of bottled water, the official Xinhua News Agency reported yesterday. Hechi Mayor He Xinxing issued a public apology after the incident, China National Radio reported. The city’s Communist Party Chief Huang Shiyong pledged to “severely crack down” on polluting companies, the China News Service reported.

Environmental contamination has fueled social unrest in China as three decades of growth transformed the nation into the world’s second-biggest economy and its largest polluter. Lead poisoning from battery makers, fluoride leaks from solar panel plants and acid spills from copper mines are among incidents that have sparked public outrage, prompting President Hu Jintao and other senior officials to pledge to reduce pollution.

Neutralizing Toxin

In Guangxi, authorities dumped hundreds of tons of chemicals into the river to neutralize the cadmium, according to Xinhua. Hechi officials haven’t been able to confirm the direct source of the pollution because of the area’s complicated geography, China National Radio reported, citing Wu Haique, director of the city’s environmental protection agency.

Cadmium, used in batteries and paint pigments, may cause kidney dysfunction and cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Liuzhou is prepared to discharge water from upstream reservoirs to help dilute the metal, today’s radio report said, citing Gan Jinglin, the city’s director of environmental protection.

Any cadmium in the water will be “greatly diluted” by bigger rivers and reservoirs downstream, and levels of the metal won’t exceed safety standards in neighboring Guangdong province, Hong Kong and Macau, China National Radio reported yesterday, citing Xu Zhencheng, a researcher involved in the spill cleanup. About 70 percent of Hong Kong’s water comes from Guangdong, according to the city’s government.

The cadmium will have a lasting environmental impact including on local fish and soil when the metal sinks to the riverbed, the radio reported yesterday, citing Li Li, a researcher at Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences.

Songhua Spill

Several instances of chemical spills have threatened Chinese cities’ drinking water in the past decade. A 2005 explosion at a unit of PetroChina Co. in northern China caused 100 tons of toxins to be spilled into the Songhua river, forcing authorities to shut off tap water for more than 3 million people in the city of Harbin. That incident led to the resignation of Xie Zhenhua as China’s top environmental protection official.

Tests conducted late yesterday in Guangxi found that cadmium concentrations at the Liuxi water plant were 0.0046 milligrams per liter, within national standards, the radio report said, citing local authorities.

Liuzhou may stop drawing water from the river and use reserves and ground water instead if the level of cadmium reaches double the normal rate, China National Radio said, citing Liuzhou Mayor Zheng Junkang.

All seven heavy-metal production plants located upstream have suspended operation in order to curb potential sources of pollution, according to Xinhua.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: William Bi in Beijing at +86-10-6649-7578 or wbi@bloomberg.net

--William Bi. Editors: John Liu, Nathaniel Espino

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: William Bi in Beijing at wbi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Liu at jliu42@bloomberg.net


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