China Environmental News Digest

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Monday, November 27, 2006

China Punishes Officials A Year After Toxic Spill

BEIJING, Nov 24 - Reuters

China has punished officials responsible for the Songhua River spill that cut off drinking water in Harbin for days, one of the country's worst environmental disasters, Xinhua news agency said on Friday.

An explosion last November at a PetroChina plant in northeastern Jilin province poured 100 tonnes of toxic benzene compounds into the Songhua, leaving millions of people in the downstream city of Harbin without drinking water for nearly a week.

The blast, caused by a mishandling of a steam valve by workers, killed eight people and injured 60, and caused direct economic losses of 69 million yuan (US$8.79 million), it said.

Duan Wende, vice president of PetroChina and its parent company, the China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC), received an "administrative demerit" for the state-owned firm's negligence in work safety, Xinhua said.

Nine others, including Yu Li, general manager of the Jilin Petrochemical Company, and Shen Dongming, head of the benzene plant, were either sacked, demoted or received demerits and warnings, Xinhua said without elaborating.

Wang Liying, director of the Jilin provincial environmental protection bureau, received a demerit and Wu Yang, head of the environmental watchdog in Jilin city, where the plant is located, got a warning, it said.

The report did not mention whether any criminal action might be brought against any of those involved.

The penalties came two days after a cabinet meeting chaired by Premier Wen Jiabao that vowed "serious punishments".

China's leaders under Wen and President Hu Jintao have been trying to instill greater accountability among officials in order to boost legitimacy in the ruling Communist Party.

Investigators concluded that the plant had had no effective contingency plans for accidents and Jilin environment officials had failed to report the potential water pollution risks "comprehensively and accurately", Xinhua said.

The State Environmental Protection Administration, whose minister Xie Zhenhua was fired in December over the spill, was also blamed for initially underestimating the "grave consequences", Xinhua said.

A vice mayor of Jilin city hanged himself in December after national media criticised city officials for deliberately covering up the spill, delaying preparations and causing panic in Harbin.

CNPC's head, Chen Geng, stepped down earlier this month after reaching the retirement age of 60, and is expected to leave his post as chairman of PetroChina by the end of the year.

China sometimes allows top officials to serve beyond the official retirement age. But Chen's two-year tenure was marred by a string of industrial accidents.

(US$1=7.853 Yuan)

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