Chinese officials shut down running water

Residents of a town along a poisoned river in northern China lined up with jugs and buckets to get water from trucks Thursday after officials shut down running water to 26,000 people. Local authorities said the shutdown in Dalianhe would last three days 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.

Service was stopped Wednesday evening in Dalianhe on the outskirts of Yilan, a city in Heilongjiang province, as a slick of benzene approached on the Songhua River. The toxic chemical was spewed into the river in an industrial accident Nov. 13 in a neighboring province.

The government said Yilan itself would not likely be affected because the city of about 110,000 gets its water from wells, not the river. On Thursday, trucks filled with water were parked in neighborhoods around Dalianhe.

"When one person has trouble, eight will lend a hand," read a banner attached to the side of one of the vehicles. Workers stood by to help residents fill up their containers in frigid cold.

Some trucks were from as far away as the provincial capital of Harbin, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) west, where water to 3.8 million people was shut down for five days because of the pollution. The spill caused by the 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. China has apologized to Russia, where the 80-kilometer (50-mile) -long slick is headed. It expected to reach that country's major border city of Khabarovsk in days. Experts say the damage is likely to be long-lasting, but the full effects won't be known until at least early next year.

Oleg Mitvol, the deputy chief of Russia's Federal Natural Resources Service, told reporters in Moscow that after the toxic slick passes Khabarovsk, authorities will have to continue cleaning water at least until next June as ice containing benzene will melt in the spring. Mitvol said while the spill could not be compared to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster that contaminated a large territory with radioactive fallout, "the situation is extremely problematic from the point of view of ecology."

"We will be able to calculate it only in several years," he said after traveling to Khabarovsk, a city of about 580,000.

Residents there have scooped up bottled water in stores, leaving many shops with only carbonated water. Some were filling bathtubs and any container they could find at home.

City officials plan to send inspectors to halt profiteering on water, Khabarovsk's DTV channel reported Wednesday. Prices for bottled water have doubled in some markets. Zhang Hui, who owns a restaurant in Dalianhe, said she and her four employees were lugging enormous jugs of water from a nearby well to cope with the shutoff.

"We carry them back from down the street," said Zhang, as she served up steaming dishes of eggs, tofu and soupy noodles. Filled fish tanks stood at the entrance of the restaurant.

In Yilan, 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. Riverfront parks were closed in the city, which lies at the juncture of the Songhua and Mudan Rivers, a famous scenic spot, reports the AP. I.L.

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