China cadmium spill still dangerous

A river in central China remains dangerously contaminated by cadmium, despite claims by some local officials that the threat has already receded, a state media report said Tuesday. The level of cadmium found in a tributary of the Yangtze River, in Hunan province, following a leak last week was still at 22 to 40 times above acceptable standards on Sunday, the state-run newspaper China Youth Daily reported, citing the provincial environmental bureau.

The report accused local authorities of understating the risk to local water supplies for Xiangtan after the spill, which occurred Jan. 4 while workers were cleaning up silt during a routine cleaning of wastewater drain pipes. About 600,000 people live in the city. Reports about the severity of the problem were conflicting. Another newspaper, the China Daily, cited Hunan's top environmental official, Jiang Yimin, as saying the level of potentially cancer-causing cadmium further downstream, near the provincial capital of Changsha, was one or two times above the national standards.

But Jiang said that drinking water for households was safe "due to timely emergency measures." Upstream reservoirs had released water, helping to dilute the spill, and chemicals were added to the water to help neutralize the cadmium, the report said.

The China Youth Daily said levels of cadmium and other pollutants from chemical plants and other factories were dangerously high even before the spill. Environmental tests found the concentration of cadmium accumulated in ponds near Xiangtan to be 200 times above safe levels. "Who's lying?" the China Youth Daily asked. Local officials contacted by phone said the problem was "complicated" and had not yet been resolved. "We haven't sorted the whole thing out yet, so it's too early to comment," said an official at the publicity department of the Xiangtan city government. Like the others, he refused to give his name due to the sensitivity of the situation.

China has been hit by a spate of major water pollution incidents in the past few months that have underscored the high environmental cost of the nation's breakneck economic growth.

The biggest of those accidents, a toxic spill in the Songhua River from a chemical plant in northeastern China in November, forced the suspension of water supplies for millions of people, reports the AP. I.L.

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