BEIJING, China (CNN),Saturday, November 26, 2005 Posted: 0650 GMT -- Chinese government officials appear ready to punish those responsible for a 100-tonne benzene spill into a river, which has disrupted water service in a city of 9 million people, while a Harbin city resident has filed a suit against a petroleum company over the incident.
Ding Ning, a resident of the Chinese city of Harbin, filed the suit on Thursday against Jilin Petrochemical Company, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corporation, in the court of Nangang District of Harbin, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
Jilin Petrochemical owns a plant where an explosion took place on November 13, spilling the benzene into the Songhua River.
The blast also killed five people and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.
The plant is in Jilin, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Harbin. Used in gasoline, benzene is a cancer-causing substance.
The 80 kilometer (50-mile) toxic spill flowed downstream, reaching Harbin this week. Officials were forced to cut off the city's water service for four days, and the spill has sparked widespread unease among residents, who were not notified of the potential health threat for days after the blast.
One Chinese newspaper reported that environmental protection officials discharged water from a reservoir into the river to dilute the spill and failed to warm the public, although the government disputes those allegations.
Beijing on Friday stepped up its investigation of the spill, sending teams of investigators to Harbin.
The teams included disciplinary officials, Xinhua reported -- a possible signal that criminal charges or punishment could be pending.
"It's clear who's responsible for this accident," said Zhang Lujin, deputy director of the state Environmental Protection Agency. "Jilin Chemical Company is mainly responsible for this pollution accident."
The United Nations on Friday said a U.N. environmental team was on standby to help Chinese and Russian authorities with the river contamination, including an environmental assessment or technical support.
But the U.N. said no request for help had been received. The U.N. said its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' Environment Unit was monitoring the situation and "remains in close contact with a number of potential donor governments and other relevant partners" including the U.N.'s World Health Organization.
In his lawsuit against the company, Ding accuses Jilin Petrochemical of contaminating the river "and greatly affecting the normal life of Harbin residents," Xinhua reported.
His suit seeks a compensation of 15 yuan -- less than $2 -- and a formal apology from the corporation.
Ding told Xinhua that the life of Harbin citizens was disrupted by the sudden water cutoff, as many scrambled to stockpile bottled water. Schools were closed, and hotels stopped operating temporarily.
"A formal apology would be valued by me and my fellow residents," he said. "The monetary compensation is only symbolic."
Zeng Yukang, deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corporation, issued a public apology Thursday for the spill. But Ding maintained an apology after a court ruling remained necessary. (Full story)
The toxic portion of the river is expected to be past Harbin by later Saturday. Government officials have been adding water to the river in an attempt to dilute the spill, and installing charcoal filters.
Harbin, however, endured a third day without water service on Friday, and residents -- many of whom had to rise early to find bottled water -- were frustrated.
"How can we not feel tired?" one 65-year-old man asked. "We have to get up to fetch water so early."
The poisoned water is headed towards Russia, where preparations were being made for its arrival.
Meanwhile, a Thursday explosion at a chemical plant in Chongquing city raised new concerns about another potential health hazard.
Xinhua reported the blast killed one person and injured three, and prompted the evacuation of 6,000 students and residents. It remained under investigation, the news agency said.