Chinese oil company apologizes for polluting water

China's biggest oil company is apologizing for an explosion at a chemical plant that sent a toxic slick of benzene flowing through this major city and forced its government to cut off running water to 3.8 million people. Zeng Yukang, deputy general manager of China National Petroleum Corp., expressed "sympathy and deep apologies" late Thursday to the people of Harbin and others in China's northeast whose water supply has been shut down, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

A senior Chinese environmental official on Wednesday said CNPC was to blame for the disaster and defended the government's handling of it, saying local officials were warned and no one had been sickened by the poisoned water.

"We will be very clear about who's responsible. It is the chemical plant of the CNPC," said the official, Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration. Asked whether the company might face criminal charges or fines, he said that had not been decided.

The disaster has highlighted the environmental damage caused by China's sizzling economic growth and complaints that the secretive communist government is failing to enforce standards meant to protect the public. The government says all of China's major rivers are dangerously polluted and many cities lack adequate drinking water.

The explosion at a chemical plant owned by a CNPC subsidiary on Nov. 13 killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others. Authorities blamed the accident on human error at a tower that processed benzene, a toxic, potentially cancer-causing chemical used in making plastics, detergents and pesticides.

The decision to cut off Harbin's water supply set off panicked buying that cleared supermarket shelves of bottled water, milk and soft drinks. The government said it would take about 40 hours for the chemical to pass the city.

"It was handled properly," the official, Zhang Lijun, said Thursday at a crowded news conference in Beijing.

The government did not publicly confirm that the Songhua had been poisoned with benzene until Wednesday, 10 days after the explosion. But Zhang said local officials and companies were told as soon as the spill was detected and stopped using river water.

"Authorities acted that day, and not one person has been sickened," he said.

With its huge population, China ranks among countries with the smallest water supplies per person. Hundreds of cities regularly suffer shortages of water for drinking or industry. Protests have erupted in rural areas throughout China over complaints that pollution is ruining water supplies and damaging crops, reports the AP. I.L.

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