Officials declared water safe for drinking today in a northern Chinese city where supplies to 3.8 million people were shut down for five days after a pollution scare in a nearby river, but residents remained wary about taking their first sips.
"Harbin's water is now safe to use and drink," Xiu Tinggong, vice director of the city's health inspection bureau, said on local television. "Everybody can rest assured that the water is safe."
But many residents decided not to drink it yet, just in case. By the riverside, a retired worker who would only give his surname, Su, walked home with fresh vegetables that he planned to wash in bottled, not tap water.
Running water was turned back on in Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province, on Sunday after supplies were shut down following a Nov. 13 explosion at a nearby chemical plant that spewed toxins in the Songhua River.
Officials initially warned that the water wasn't immediately safe to drink after lying in underground pipes for five days. Even as water was deemed safe in Harbin, supplies to more communities along the river were cut off as the 80-kilometer (50-mile) long stretch of cancer-causing benzene moved its way downstream toward Russia. Authorities there were bracing for the spill to reach the border within days.
Beijing has offered no estimates on how many people rely on the Songhua for drinking water. On Monday, 10,000 people downstream in Yilan County were without water service, China Central Television reported. The Nov. 13 explosion upstream in the city of Jilin killed five people and spewed about 100 tons of benzene into the river, authorities have said. In Harbin, the ice-capped Songhua River showed no sign of the tons of benzene and related chemicals that had recently flowed through. A kite-seller in Stalin Park named Wu De shrugged off the pollution scare, saying that it was a "small thing" that hadn't impacted his life at all.
But the spill created a political disaster for President Hu Jintao, who has promised greater government accountability in the face of endemic corruption and recurrent public health scares like bird flu, the AP reported. The disaster also highlighted the costs of China's breakneck economic development, which has lifted millions out of poverty but left environmental protections in shambles.
Hu's government issued embarrassing apologies to China's public and to Russia, where the nation's emergency agency said Monday it was preparing to switch off running water and airlift activated carbon for use in water treatment facilities to help absorb the spill.