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China's Poisoned Rivers Highlight Growing Environmental Problems


Chinese authorities are working to contain two more toxic spills that have contaminated the country's rivers. The spills highlight the cost that China is paying for its rapid economic growth. Analysts say authorities are having to re-examine the way they handle the country's mounting environmental problems.

Chinese officials on Wednesday sought to reassure the public that drinking water supplies remained safe in southern China's Hunan province, after dangerous amounts of cancer-causing cadmium spilled and poisoned the Xiang River last week. The leak occurred while crews were trying to clean up an earlier toxic spill.

In the northeastern province of Shandong, authorities dealt with yet another spill, involving six tons of diesel fuel that seeped into the Yellow River.

For decades, China has enacted environmental laws that have been ignored, especially as the country sped up the industrial development that has made its economy among the fastest-growing in the world.

Toufiq Siddiqi of the East West Institute in the United States has researched pollution trends in China. He explains why enforcement has been lax.

"Because of the concern that this would slow down economic growth, factories were evaluated more on the basis of whether they met production quotas, rather than how good a job they were doing with protecting the environment," said Siddiqi.

Editorials in the Chinese media this week spoke of how the spills of the type reported recently are not new. Analysts say what is different is that Beijing is now allowing the media to talk about such accidents.

This is seen as a possible indication of a change in the central government's attitude towards environmental problems.

"It indicates that the government now is more open and it realizes that the information on such cases cannot be considered as confidential," said Wen Bo, the Beijing consultant for Pacific Environment, an American advocacy group. "The more you intend to cover up such information, the more questions or conjectures there will be," he added.

Chinese authorities drew criticism in November when they waited more than a week to tell residents of Harbin, in China's northeast, about a benzene spill.

Tons of the cancer-causing chemical were dumped into the Songhua River, Harbin's main source of drinking water, by an explosion in a chemical factory. The emergency prompted officials to cut water supplies to millions of people along the river for days. The authorities at first said they were shutting off the water for routine maintenance, but finally had to admit the truth.

In the case of the recent cadmium spill in Hunan province, disagreements have emerged on whether the water of the Xiang River is safe, as the government says. A Chinese newspaper this week quoted unidentified provincial officials as saying the authorities played down the severity of the spill. They said toxin levels in the river remained dangerously high.