Far East situation with toxic water is under control

A top environmental protection official urged residents of Russia's Far East city of Khabarovsk on Tuesday not to panic over a toxic soup headed their way on the Amur River, drinking a glass of water as television cameras rolled to demonstrate authorities had the situation under control. But a spokesman for the World Wide Fund for Nature said the river faced "ecological catastrophe" as an 80-kilometer (50-mile) long slick of chemicals floated toward the Russian border from China, where a Nov. 13 explosion at a chemical plant spewed it into the Songhua River.

The pollution will result in massive fish deaths and force city residents and industries to search for alternative sources of water, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The only way to get rid of the toxic chemicals, including cancer-causing benzene, is evaporation, but the water temperature would have to be 20 C (68 F) to start that process, Mitasov said. Currently it's about 10 C (50 F) and there is ice on some stretches of the river, which ultimately feeds into the Sea of Okhotsk.

Still, the WWF said in a report issued Tuesday that the disaster "is just an extreme version of what is happening every year and what goes almost totally unnoticed by the residents of the basin and the international community."

It classified many stretches of the lower Amur as already "polluted," "highly polluted" or even "extremely highly polluted" and blamed cross-border pollution from China, Russian industries such as power plants and transport, and forest fires. The incidence of dysentery and hepatitis A, both waterborne diseases, in the Khabarovsk region ordinarily is double the national average, it said.

While the fish in the river are not safe to eat, especially in winter, local people continue to rely on them. "There's a particular problem, chasing fishermen from the ice," Russia's top public health official, Gennady Onishchenko said, according to Gazeta.ru Web site. "The passion for fishing is no less than for drugs."

Emergency relief officials delivered 20 tons of activated charcoal to the city on Tuesday to treat the water.Over the weekend, the government of China's President Hu Jintao apologized to China's public and to Russia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said Tuesday that Moscow was satisfied by Beijing's cooperation. The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted him as saying the Chinese government was sending information on the spill to Moscow every day, reports the AP. N.U.

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