Chinese city welcomes return of running water, but warns it is too dirty to drink

Residents welcomed the return of running water to Harbin in China's northeast after a chemical spill in a river forced a five-day shutdown. But relief was tempered by a warning that what was coming out of the tap was still too dirty to drink.

Water service began to return to the provincial capital of 3.8 million people on Sunday evening after the government said toxins spewed into the Songhua River by a chemical plant explosion had declined to safe levels.

"When that running water came back on, it was a completely wonderful feeling. It's been four days since I had a shower," said Cao Sijun, a 46-year-old taxi driver.

Local television showed the governor of Heilongjiang province, where Harbin is located, drinking a glass of water from the tap in a Harbin family's home after service resumed.

But the government warned the public that the water wasn't safe to drink yet, saying supplies that had been lying in pipes for five days were too dirty. It said it would announce on radio and television when the water was deemed safe enough to bathe in and later to drink.

The Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion in Jilin, a city upstream from Harbin on the Songhua, was a political disaster for President Hu Jintao's government and cast a harsh light on the environmental costs of China's breakneck development.

Hu's government was forced to issue embarrassing apologies to both China's public and to Russia, where a border city downstream from Harbin is bracing for the arrival of the benzene pollution.

Environmentalists criticized the official response to the spill and questioned the decision to allow construction of a facility handling such dangerous materials near a key water source.

The government has promised to investigate the spill and punish any officials found responsible.

State media have accused local officials of first concealing and then lying about the explosion, which killed five people and forced the evacuation of 10,000 others.

The city government didn't say how many days it might be until the water supply was considered safe for the public to drink, AP reported. V.A.

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