Chinese river town shuts down water supply as toxic slick arrives

Another town on a poisoned Chinese river shut down its water system, and Communist Party members went door-to-door giving out bottled water in an effort to show that China's leaders can protect the public.

Running water service to about 26,000 people was stopped at 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) Wednesday on the outskirts of the northeastern city of Yilan as a slick of toxic benzene approached on the Songhua River, said an employee who answered the phone at the area's county government offices.

"It (the shutdown) will last three days," said the employee, who would give only his surname, Gu.

The government said Yilan itself would not likely be affected because the city of about 110,000 people gets its water from wells, not the river.

The benzene arrived in the area a day after Harbin, a major industrial center upstream from Yilan, declared its running water safe to drink after its 3.8 million people endured five days without it.

The spill caused by a Nov. 13 chemical plant explosion has embarrassed President Hu Jintao's government, which has promised to clean up the environment and do more to help ordinary Chinese people.

News reports showed police and party members in red armbands going door-to-door in freezing weather, handing out leaflets and giving cases of drinking water to the elderly and poor. In one scene, an elderly man lying in bed shook hands with a police commander.

Communist leaders are eager to show that while they failed to prevent the spill, they are concerned about public safety and can marshal the resources to handle the aftermath.

"I really thank the government," another man, identified as Zhou Changgui, was shown saying.

The 80-kilometer- (50-mile- ) long slick is moving toward Russia and is expected to reach that country's major border city of Khabarovsk on Dec. 10-12.

The Songhua flows into the Heilong River, which becomes the Amur in Russia.

Also Wednesday, Health Minister Gao Qiang warned against complacency after the spill passed Harbin, saying it is still a "major problem."

"This matter has alerted us to the need for perfect contingency plans and the effective implementation of those plans when faced with an emergency," Gao said at a news conference.

Riverfront parks were closed in Yilan, which lies at the confluence of the Songhua and Mudan Rivers, a famous scenic spot.

Experts say the damage is likely to be long-lasting, but the full effects won't be known until at least early next year, with the thaw of river ice believed to contain benzene.

The river could take 10 years or more to flush out pollutants absorbed by mud and microorganisms, said Zhang Qingxiang, an environmental expert at Shanghai's East China University of Science and Technology, AP reported. V.A.

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