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The Jilin chemical plant explosions and Songhua River Pollution Incident, China


Description:

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 [1].

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 [2].

"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).

Basic Data

Name of conflict:The Jilin chemical plant explosions and Songhua River Pollution Incident, China
Country:China
State or province:Jilin province
Location of conflict:Jilin city
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Industrial and Utilities conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Chemical industries
Specific commodities: Aniline, benzene and nitrobenzene
Chemical products

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:6 killed, dozens injured, over 10,000 evacuated
Start of the conflict:13/11/2005
Company names or state enterprises:Jilin Petrochemical Corporation (Jilin Petrochemicals ) from China - Operator of petrochemical plant
China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC ) from China - Owner of Jilin Petrochemical Corporation
Relevant government actors:Former Premier Wen Jiabao, Former Minister of China's State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) Xie Zhenhua, Vice Governor of Jilin province Jiao Zhengzhong and Deputy General Manager of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) Zeng Yukang, former Jilin Vice Mayor Wang Wei, Environmental Protection Bureaux of Heilongjiang Province, Jiamusi and Harbin, as well as SEPA Environmental Monitoring Centre, Heilongjiang Environmental Monitoring Centre and Jiamusi Environmental Monitoring Station
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityLATENT (no visible organising at the moment)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Oil spills, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Air pollution, Fires, Noise pollution, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Other Environmental impactsThe longer-term environmental consequences of the Chinese spill are unknown. Environmental and other groups have suggested that the food chain in the river basin and corresponding region could be affected for some time. The Times (UK) reported on December 21, 2005 that fishing in the area could be banned for as long as four years. Other articles have suggested that the benzene contamination could present a long-term problem in that it can bioaccumulate in the basin's organisms, remain trapped in river ice that will melt and result in additional releases, and become trapped in the river's sediments [3].
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Deaths
Other Health impactsThe explosion severely polluted the Songhua River, with an estimated 100 tons of pollutants containing benzene and nitrobenzene entering into the river [4]. Exposure to benzene reduces white blood cell count and is linked to leukemia (ibid).

Outcome

Project StatusUnknown
Conflict outcome / response:Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Institutional changes
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Among the policy consequences of the spill were a revision of the Water Pollution Control Act and an enhanced focus on emergency response. In the short term, the government took on a range of measures, including an extensive legal enforcement campaign in the spring following the spill. [...] In 2002 Beijing began to establish Regional Supervision Centers (RSCs) that answered directly to SEPA instead of local governments. Following the Songhua incident, the process of establishing the local EPBs was further expedited and prioritized, and both ADB and the World Bank are currently involved in projects helping the establishment of additional RSCs. At present the RSCs, which include a major center in Chongqing, have met with limited success, but they represent an important step towards a clear chain of accountability in the process of environmental protection, which in itself promotes government transparency. [...] [Moreover], SEPA has gained ministerial status in the Chinese government. Now known as the Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), SEPA was reorganized in March 2008 to greatly strengthen connections between regional EPBs and the new central ministry. [...] Lida Tan of the U.S. EPA notes that the reorganization of SEPA, while only announced in 2008, would have required extensive preparation beginning much earlier, perhaps placing the move's beginnings during the official fallout over the Songhua spill in early 2006. [...] The November 2005 Songhua spill [also marked] a moment of rare open dialogue between China's domestic and international media, state and local government officials, and a more general assortment of voices speaking through Internet forums, cell phones, and university bulletin boards.[39] As measures intended to control the spread and release of information failed, the government proved remarkably deft in responding to public criticism. Once opened, lines of communication with international and domestic environmental groups and media outlets remained so, receiving regular updates regarding the spill and efforts to control its impact. In addition to UNEP, the Chinese invited Russian scientific teams to take part in measurements and further work during the event's clean-up phase [Wilson Center]

Sources & Materials

LinksĀ to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[1] Positive Spillover? Impact of the Songhua River Benzene Incident on China' s Environmental Policy
http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/positive-spillover-impact-the-songhua-river-benzene-incident-china-s-environmental

[2] China blames oil firm for chemical spill
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/24/world/asia/24iht-harbin.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] The Songhua River Spill: China's Pollution Crisis
http://www.parsonsbehle.com/publications/the-songhua-river-spill-china-s-pollution-crisis

[4] China pledges to minimize impact of river pollution on Russia
http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2005-11/24/content_3831641.htm

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

In pictures: Harbin toxic leak (BBC News)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/4466634.stm

Meta information

Contributor:EJOLT team at School of Geography and China Centre, University of Oxford
Last update27/02/2018