China Environmental News Digest

Daily updated Environmental news related to China

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Spill Doesn't Stop Chinese City's Festival

By AUDRA ANG , 01.04.2006, 01:33 PM ,Xu Jianguo and his friends wandered through this northern city's ice lantern exhibit - massive sculptures carved from river ice - as Kenny G blared into the frigid night air.

"It's beautiful here," said Xu, a 26-year-old businessman from the neighboring province of Jilin. "No other place in the world has this."

He is one of millions of tourists Harbin hopes to draw to its annual winter festival despite a spill of cancer-causing benzene into the Songhua River that forced authorities to cut off running water to the city of 3.8 million for five days in November.

The toxic spill highlighted China's environmental problems and strained ties with neighboring Russia, where the slick reached the Far East city of Khabarovsk on Dec. 23.

Russia's ITAR-Tass news agency reported Wednesday that the pollution had moved on to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, the second-largest Russian city on the river. Emergency workers said the concentration of toxic chemicals at Komsomolsk was lower than the admissible limit and there were no plans to reduce municipal water supplies.

Leaders in Harbin have launched a public relations offensive in an effort to keep the spill from ruining the winter festival, the most important event of the year for the city's tourism industry.

Harbin has replaced standard gravel filters at its water processing plants with activated carbon that can remove more toxins. The general manager of the state-owned Chinese chemical company blamed for the Nov. 23 explosion that spewed the chemicals into the Songhua has been removed from his post.

"Water quality has improved dramatically. Drinking water is very secure and even better than before," Du Yuxin, the city's Communist Party secretary, told reporters on Wednesday, the eve of the festival's official opening.

"There's absolutely no need to change travel itineraries because of the water pollution," he said.

However, he said the ice blocks used in the Ice and Snow Festival were cut from tributaries of the Songhua. "We investigated the ice-mining location (for the festival) and found that there were no pollutants," Du said. "The ice for the festival is in the green zone."

The spill appears so far to have had little impact on the numbers of tourists planning to visit Harbin for the festival, with Chinese travel agencies reporting few cancellations.

"There's nothing to be afraid of. They took care of it all," said Sun Chen, 23, a first-time visitor from the eastern province of Shandong.

Children and adults posed in front of the sculptures, which included replicas of pagodas, ships and scenes from Chinese literature. Most were lit from within by neon lights glowing red, pink, yellow and green.

The centerpiece of the festival is a display of huge sculptures of world landmarks and other scenes made from blocks of ice.

The event is the main winter tourist attraction in China's remote northeast, where temperatures can drop to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Du said local businesses have rebounded following the water shutdown, though he said complete figures on losses weren't available. He would not answer questions about possible compensation claims or lawsuits by hotels, restaurants and other businesses that suffered losses.

The Harbin city government said last month it was borrowing $79 million to pay for recovery efforts, but didn't give details of where that money would go.

Experts also worry that the river ice and snow could release benzene when they melt in spring. Du said Chinese authorities are monitoring pollution levels and will release test results in March.
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