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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Khabarovsk region residents say chemical spill has turned their river into a timebomb

(AP)31 December 2005KHABAROVSK, Russia - Throughout this city of 580,000 on Russia’s Amur River, apartments have turned into warehouses for bottles, canisters and tubs storing clean water.

No one is rushing to get rid of their reserves even days after a toxic spill from China has floated downriver.

After weeks of conflicting signals, the authorities did not in the end turn off the tap water in residential buildings as the slick from the Nov. 13 Chinese chemical plant explosion made its way through town; government experts said that after its filtration with activated charcoal the water would be purer than before the slick.

But many residents swore off tap water for any use for the foreseeable future.

Nikolai Godnik said he would continue driving every few days to the village of Severny, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Khabarovsk, where he can draw water from a well. He packs his car trunk with 30-liter canisters and rolls each one across the snow back to the car after filling it.

He has forbidden his 12-year-old son, Andrei, from even bathing in the tap water at home, much less drinking it.

“I trust water from the earth more than the authorities,” the 40-year-old metal worker said as he filled a canister after standing in a long line of Khabarovsk residents in -20 C (-4 F) temperatures.

Back in Khabarovsk, on the frozen Amur, fisherman Valery Myskin scooped up a whole pail of eels from a hole he’d drilled in the ice - and threw them right back in.

The lamprey had been swimming against the current to spawn and had just landed in the heart of the toxic slick.

“The authorities said that the Chinese spill had gone, but the smell has stayed,” the 46-year-old fisherman said with disgust.

The regional government is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the spring thaw, when the long-term effects from the spill may become clearer. Nitrobenzene is heavier than water and is settling on the Amur River bottom and sticking to the ice.

“We’re sitting on a powder keg that could explode as easily as the ice in the Amur come spring,” said Natalya Zimina, a spokeswoman for the regional government.

Once the ice melts, the toxic water will hit reservoirs - lakes, ponds and swamps - and stay for a long time.

“Greater concentrations of toxic elements will collect in those reservoirs than in the river itself,” predicted German Novomodny, director of the TINRO ecological center in Khabarovsk.

That will not only endanger fish, whose benzene concentrations are already 20 times more than the level registered in the river water, but also birds and other animals that eat the fish, molluscs and plants in those reservoirs.

The authorities haven’t begun to calculate the economic damage from the 2-year ban on fishing from the river. The region’s fishing industry is paralyzed at the very time it’s usually beginning the lucrative cull of spawning fish.

The situation is made more difficult by the fact that up to now, China has not provided full information on the elements spewed into the water, experts say. In addition to benzene compounds, Russian scientists have found chlorine and aromatic hydrocarbon compounds - ethyl benzene, xylene, toluene - which are highly toxic.

Russia has begun building its case to get compensation from China. In the words of Konstantin Chaika, a representative of the Far East branch of the Prosecutor General’s office, the entire damage done to the Amur, including to its flora and fauna, is being assessed.

“We are fully able to solve the problems of Amur pollution in the framework of criminal law,” he said.

Ecologists are demanding joint Chinese-Russian monitoring of the situation. In 2005, China refused to take part in joint programs. On the banks of the Songhua River, which feeds into the Amur, the Chinese have built 16 petrochemical factories.

“China’s amazing economic growth has led to an even more amazing decline in all the ecosystems of the mighty Amur,” said Yevgeny Simonov, a representative of the Far East branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Close to 90 percent of Amur pollution originates in China, the WWF says.

Godnik, the Khabarovsk metal worker, is stocking up on wellwater and preparing for the worst. He intends to forbid his son not only from swimming in the Amur come summer, but even from sunbathing along its banks.

“The Amur has become a timebomb,” he said. “What can we expect of it?”

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