For Harbin resident Zhao Lichun, enjoying the city's giant sculptures made from ice from the Songhua River is an annual tradition -- even six weeks after a toxic spill polluted the river.
HARBIN, China For Harbin resident Zhao Lichun, enjoying the city's giant sculptures made from ice from the Songhua River is an annual tradition -- even six weeks after a toxic spill polluted the river and disrupted running water to millions of people.
"Sure I'm a little afraid, but this is something we do every year," said Zhao, a 43-year-old factory worker. "Besides, everyone in the world is here. It's so beautiful and it's left such a deep impression."
The sculptures -- including a 30-meter-high (100-foot-high) cathedral and a 10-story-high replica of France's Arc de Triomphe -- are the centerpiece of Harbin's winter festival, which opened Thursday.
Local authorities have launched an aggressive public relations campaign, assuring residents and visitors that the city has rebounded from the benzene spill in November in the Songhua. They want to keep the disaster from ruining the festival, which usually attracts millions of visitors to the region's most popular event of the season.
"The festival is how the world knows Harbin," Wang Zhifa, deputy director for the National Tourism Bureau, said at the opening ceremony where 1,500 foreign and local guests were invited. "We hope this festival will let Harbin shine."
Du Yuxin, Harbin's Communist Party secretary, told reporters this week that water quality had improved since the spill and assured visitors that there was "no need to change travel itineraries because of the water pollution."
He said the festival used only ice from tributaries of the Songhua, which did not have any toxic chemicals.
Zhang Zhiquan, director of the Harbin Institute of Environment and Science who headed the group of experts examining the ice for the festival promised: "I can tell you responsibly that all the ice is free of pollution."
Travelers appear convinced.
"Harbin is still one of the hottest places for tourists in Beijing," said Cai Yunyun of the Beijing Youth Travel Service. "Tourists are not bothered by the pollution."
Russian travel agencies also reported brisk business for tours to Harbin although the disaster strained relations between China and Russia, where the slick reached the Far East city of Khabarovsk on Dec. 23.
"The pollution has passed. It's not the same water," said Alexei Kuzminykh, a 24-year-old tourist from Russia's Chita region who said he was visiting Harbin for four days. "There are many ice cities in Russia, but they are nothing like Harbin."
While the government says benzene levels in the river fell back to safe levels in early December, experts are watching to see whether any chemicals are released when the ice melts in the spring.
Paul Johnston, a Greenpeace researcher based in Britain, said it was hard to predict what would happen because there has been very little study on how benzene -- a colorless solvent and gasoline additive -- behaves in cold weather.
"There are a huge number of questions that still need to be answered about the fate of the material both in the short-term and long-term," Johnston said in a telephone interview.
But "if the water is considered fit for drinking purposes, it's obviously safe for people to use in any form. It's very unlikely to pose a risk by handling blocks of ice."
However, he said, that there should be further tests.
Equally important, Johnston said, is the implementation of a river management system "aimed at improving water quality and minimizing the possibility of future spills into the system."
On Thursday, people rode sail-propelled sleds on the river in sunny, minus 20 degree centigrade (minus 4 degree Fahrenheit) weather. About a dozen men and women dove into a pool cut through the Songhua's thick ice and hammed it up for a cheering crowd.
"After we swim, we go home and wring out our suits and it is clear and clean water. There's no pollution! Not even a bit!" said one swimmer, who gave only his surname, Qiu.
Source: Associated Press