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Friday, November 25, 2005 

The Way Government Agencies Handled Harbin Chemical Spill

Update: Washington Post also got a good report on how the local government initially tried to cover up the incident.

New York Times: "The roles played by different government agencies in the chemical spill began to emerge today in a flurry of articles published in the Chinese news media. The different accounts, including some from the official New China News Agency, suggested that officials in Jilin and Harbin initially sought to prevent news of the explosion from reaching the public."

The explosion occurred on Nov. 13, and factory officials initially announced that the accident posed no threat of air pollution. Officials also denied at that time that any benzene had spilled into the Songhua. Apparently, government officials in Jilin also initially denied the chemical spill to their downstream neighbors in Heilongjiang Province, home of Harbin. But Jilin officials finally told their peers in Heilongjiang on Nov. 19, according to a Shanghai newspaper, the News Morning Post.

Meanwhile, China Youth Daily reported today that local environmental officials in Jilin had first sought to dilute the spill by dumping reservoir water into the Songhua, rather than telling the public. By Monday, officials in Harbin were preparing to announce the shutdown of the water supply, but feared news of the chemical spill would incite a public panic, according to The News Morning Post. That was when they made the announcement about the maintenance work on the pipes.

Criticism also was focused on the State Environmental Protection Agency, which held a news conference on Thursday pledging to seek criminal penalties against those deemed responsible for the spill.

"It happened on the 13th," said Mr. Qi, the man walking along the river today, noting that 11 days had passed before the agency spoke out. "Where have they been?"

In serious accidents like this, ministerial, provincial and local officials often wait for cues from the top leadership in Beijing on how to respond publicly. It is unclear if top leaders played a role in the official subterfuge about the spill. The official English-language newspaper, China Daily, published an unusually blunt commentary that singled out the chemical company for criticism.

"We do not know what is behind the cover-up," the commentary stated. "It might be because they were afraid that they would have to pay money for the losses the pollution has incurred in Harbin, and it might be because they were afraid of losing face.

"But the fact is they have brought shame on themselves by covering up the truth."

The China Daily commentary portrayed Harbin officials as innocent victims who had responded effectively to the crisis. But many Harbin residents were immediately suspicious when city officials announced that the water would be stopped for maintenance work."

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