LUCHENG, Shanxi, Jan. 7 (Xinhua) -- The mayor of Changzhi City, where a chemical leak contaminated a river in north China's Shanxi Province, has apologized for the authority's delay in dealing with the incident.
Mayor Zhang Bao made the apology at a press conference held on Monday. He said the municipal government had underestimated the severity of the chemical leak after receiving the polluter's report on the accident on Dec. 31.
The provincial environmental authority did not receive the pollution report from Changzhi City until five days later.
Such an incident should be reported to provincial authorities within two hours, under requirements.
However, when the incident became public on Saturday, about 9 tonnes of aniline had been leaked by a chemical plant owned by the Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group into Zhuozhang River.
The contamination has affected drinking water supplies in downstream Handan City in neighboring Hebei Province, which has a population of more than 1 million people.
An initial investigation has revealed that a loose drainage valve in the plant was to blame for the leak.
Mayor Zhang Bao said the government had considered the company able to clear the pollution in a timely manner, as it only reported 1.5 tonnes of aniline leakage.
However, according to the local emergency response headquarters, in addition to the amount of chemical leaked into the river, another 30 tonnes of spilled aniline had been contained in a nearby disused reservoir.
By Sunday, the concentration of aniline in the river had decreased to 2.15 mg per liter from the previous level of 72 mg per liter. However, the river water still cannot be used for drinking by people downstream, as the national standard only allows less than 0.1 mg per liter of the substance in rivers.
During the press conference, Wang Junyan, party secretary of Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, also apologized for the leak.
Wang said the company lacks experience in testing, calculating and analyzing the statistics regarding the aniline leakage, which has led to the disparities between their initial reports to the government and the statistics they obtained later on.
On Jan. 4, the company reported 8.68 tonnes of aniline leakage to the government, according to Wang.
He said the company was at first unaware of the severity of the pollution, and that those responsible for the incident will be seriously punished.
The delayed response to the contamination caused panic in Handan, where residents ransacked stores for bottled water.
People expressed anger at the Changzhi City government's apparent coverup of the contamination, which left them no time to prepare water supplies at home.
The city has prevented a sluice gate from taking in water from Zhangzhuo River, and turned to an underground water source to meet needs.
The local environmental bureau said on Monday that it is clearing the contaminated water in its reservoir. "The reservoir water will not be used until test results prove it safe," it said.
Although water supply to the city is gradually being resumed, some locals continue to worry.
A citizen surnamed Jia said, "We have narrowly survived this crisis, but who can ensure that this kind of thing will never happen in the future? When the next pollution occurs, will we not be informed until five days later?"
GOVERNMENT CREDIBILITY IN QUESTION
Since Saturday, the delay of the incident report has sparked outrage in China's cyber space.
Many netizens say a lack of supervision led to the chemical leakage and the delay in dealing with the matter shows that some people were intentionally withholding the truth and trying to shift responsibility.
Micro-blogger "@Hanlu" entered a post on Sina Weibo saying that the shifting of responsibility is much worse than the incident itself.
Du Junfei, a professor at Nanjing University, said the five-day delay in exposing the incident has violated the national government's provisions on disclosure of information, and that the lag has damaged society's interests.
According to Du, some local governments still lack legal awareness and public supervision, and the country should strengthen the rule of law in order to cure this problem.
Wang Shaoyu, a professor at Harbin Institute of Technology in Heilongjiang Province, said that delayed and concealed reports are usually important contributors to losses of control in handling environmental emergencies.
The authorities should publish the information in time in order to dampen public fears, Wang said.
Jiang Rui, vice head of Heilongjiang Provincial Research Institute of Environmental Sciences, believes the country should promote the construction of chemical industry parks to better regulate and supervise factories.
Polluting enterprises should avoid situating their plants along major rivers and remove pollution risks by eliminating backward production capacity, Jiang added.