On November 13, 2005, an explosion at a petrochemical plant in China's northeastern Jilin Province resulted in the release of 100 tons of toxins into the Songhua River. [...] Much of the notoriety of the 2005 Songhua spill derives from the flawed response capability exhibited by central and regional state authorities. On November 26, representatives from China's State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) visited both the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi and the United Nations offices in Beijing to provide extensive data on the Songhua spill, after which SEPA continued to send regular updates to the United Nations. Although a decisive move on the part of the Chinese state, it approached the United Nations only after the pollution slick had reached Harbin, a full two weeks following the initial explosion in Jilin Province. While the central government went public largely because it could no longer keep information on the incident from its own citizens, it is perhaps safe to assume that this was the longest the Chinese government could wait without risking confrontation with Russia, whose border lay downriver .
Underlying China's delayed response at the international level was an almost paralyzing confusion at local and domestic levels. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion on November 13, factory officials denied that pollutants had entered the Songhua as a result. It was five days before SEPA issued emergency monitoring instructions to its provincial counterpart, the Heilongjiang Province Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB). During those five days it appears that factory officials together with local government officials attempted to manage the spill themselves without notifying Beijing, going so far as to drain reservoir water into the Songhua in an attempt to dilute the contaminants. Even after the central government intervened on November 18, it failed to notify the general public of the danger until the slick reached Harbin. In the intervening period, public rumor regarding an undefined public emergency proliferated. Several days before the spill reached Harbin, city officials shut down municipal water services, citing a need to repair the system's facilities (ibid).
Following the central government's announcement, the domestic media was filled with material regarding the spill. Many of these articles traced the chain of responsibility and cover-up leading back to the explosion, in the process implicating high-ranking officials first in Jilin and later in Harbin. At this time the international media and international environmental groups also became closely involved, following the domestic media's lead in focusing on the dangerous lack of public information surrounding the spill. Even the UNEP team invited to help evaluate the situation on the Songhua in December 2005, whose initial Field Report generally approves of the Chinese government's response to the disaster, noted that the lack of public information management posed an avoidable danger, and indicated a lack of centralized emergency response procedures (ibid).
State media reported that five people were killed in the explosion only a few hundred meters from the river bank. Up to 10,000 people were temporarily evacuated. "We will be very clear about who's responsible," Zhang Lijun, deputy director of the State Environmental Protection Administration, said at a news conference in Beijing. "It is the chemical plant of the CNPC in Jilin Province."Zhang did not elaborate, but he said an investigation would consider if there was any criminal liability for the spill. The official Xinhua news agency reported that the company had apologized for the contamination.
The company "deeply regrets" the spill and would take responsibility for handling the consequences, CNPC's deputy general manager, Zeng Yukang, was quoted as saying. The vice governor of Jilin Province, Jiao Zhengzhong, also apologized to the people of Harbin, according to a report Thursday in the newspaper Beijing News .
"Harbin's move to cut off the water supply was not a knee-jerk reaction," Zhang Lanying, an environmental expert from Jilin University, was quoted as saying.
"If the contaminated water had been supplied to households, the result would have been unimaginable." Apart from the danger to the Chinese population and environment, the spill could also have diplomatic repercussions as it heads toward the point where the Songhua River joins the Heilongjiang River, which then crosses the Russian border in the region of Khabarovsk, about 550 kilometers downriver from Harbin (ibid).