Running water has been restored on Sunday to Harbin, a major Chinese city of 3.8 million, ending a five-day shutdown caused by a chemical spill. However, people have been warned it is still not safe to drink the water.
Water service had been suspended since Tuesday, after authorities feared the Songhua River toxins contaminated the Songhua River following a chemical plant explosion on November 13, Xinhua said. The 50-mile long spill caused by 100 tons of Benzene had passed through Harbin, pushing the safety limits far down.
The spill is possibly the biggest ever of the chemical, a potentially cancer-causing compound used in making detergents and plastics.
Liu Yurun, general manager for the Harbin Water Group, the city's water utility, said local radio and television stations will broadcast a color-based indicator of water safety over the next few days — red for unusable, yellow for bathing only and green for drinking.
Work crews were busy installing over 1,000 tons of carbon filters at water plants to treat supplies from the Songhua, according to state media. In preparation, people lined up for another day in freezing wind, holding out buckets and teakettles for water provided free of charge and delivered by truck from wells operated by factories and a beer brewery.
The Harbin disaster began with a Nov. 13 explosion at the chemical plant in Jilin, a city about 120 miles southeast. Five people were killed and 10,000 evacuated. But the Chinese authorities announced only last week that the Songhua had been poisoned with 100 tons of benzene.
The state media have criticized local officials for reacting too slowly and not telling the public the truth in time. Environmentalists have said the government failed to prepare for such a disaster and questioned the decision to allow construction of a plant handling such dangerous materials near important water supplies.
Premier Wen Jiabao promised a full investigation when he visited Harbin on Saturday and told leaders to see that every resident got running water.
The spill is an embarrassment to President Hu Jintao's government, which has made a priority of repairing environmental damage from 25 years of sizzling economic growth and of looking after ordinary Chinese.
On Saturday, the Chinese foreign minister made an unusual public apology to Moscow's ambassador to Beijing for damage caused by the benzene spill, which is flowing toward a city in the Russian Far East.
Officials in Khabarovsk were preparing emergency plans including the possible shutdown of its water system.
Meanwhile, authorities in southwest China, where another chemical plant accident had sparked fears of a second chemical leak, said contamination of a nearby river was under control. The blast in Dianjiang, a county in the Chongqing region, killed one worker and evacuated 6,000 people.
About 800 residents and Communist Party members were helping clean the contaminated portion of the Guixi River using screens made of straw and charcoal, Xinhua said. It did not say what kind of chemicals had tainted the river, but said water supplies were safe.