Chemical Levels Rise in Russian River

Khabarovsk, Russia, a city of about 580,000 people, braces for the arrival of the toxic mix of chemicals that spilled from an upriver Chinese factory last month.

KHABAROVSK, Russia — Specialists have detected an increase in benzene in Russia's Far Eastern Amur River, a regional expert said, as this city of about 580,000 people braces for the arrival of the toxic mix of chemicals that spilled from an upriver Chinese factory last month.

The regional governor, meanwhile, said authorities may have to shut down the city's central heating system, a move that could prove disastrous in a region where daytime temperatures Monday were around minus 20 C (-4 F) and where residences are overwhelmingly warmed by water heating at central facilities.

Officials say the concentration of the spill has dispersed somewhat since Nov. 13 incident, which forced officials in the Chinese city of Harbin to shut down municipal water supplies.

Still, Amur river samples taken about 235 kilometers (150 miles) southwest of Khabarovsk are now showing an increase in levels of benzene, a potentially cancer-causing chemical, said Alexander Gavrilov, director of the Dalgidrometa monitoring agency. The chemicals could reach the city limits as early as Wednesday.

"The level of pollution in the water has increased to the maximum allowable concentration near the Chinese right bank of the Amur," Gavrilov said. "There's no need to overdramatize the situation."


The spill has strained relations with Moscow and stoked Russian suspicions about China and its industrial boom. Though authorities say they do not expect to shut down Khabarovsk's water supplies, many residents are preparing for the worst -- buying up bottled water, filling canisters from the taps and from outdoor ground wells, a task made more complicated by subzero daytime temperatures.

Regional emergency officials said they have nearly completed two dams to block off two river channels along the Amur's left bank -- across the river from the city.

Gov. Viktor Ishaev said in televised comments Monday that it was possible that authorities may have to shut down the central heating plant to prevent the chemicals from entering municipal pipes.

"We have not ruled out shutting off the hot water," Ishaev said.

Ishaev, who earlier said the region's residents had become "China's hostages," again blamed China for not providing complete information about what was spilled into the Amur's upriver tributaries.

Scientists say residents are still at risk of exposure to dangerous chemicals.

"China has directed us only toward nitrobenzene and benzol, but we are seeing in the river other (chemicals) that are no less dangerous," said Lyubov Kondratyeva, a water expert at the local branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Anxious not to further irk its main supplier of weaponry and an important source of oil, Beijing has apologized to Russia and has launched an investigation of the explosion and spill. The government said Saturday it also is building a temporary dam in an effort to reduce the spill's impact.

Source: Associated Press

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