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Head of Chinese firm is fired over benzene spill into river

Toxic water flows to another city; plant shut down

JIAMUSI, China -- The head of a Chinese chemical company that has been accused of a toxic spill that poisoned a major river and that strained relations with Russia has been removed from his post, the company said yesterday.

The announcement was issued as the benzene spill on the Songhua River flowed toward this northeastern city of 480,000 people, which shut down a water plant Friday as a precaution against contamination.

The slick reached Jiamusi today. It was expected to reach the Russian city of Khabarovsk next week.

A Russian regional governor, Viktor Ishayev, said yesterday that the river-fed water system of Khabarovsk, a city of 580,000 people, would be cut for three days. He complained that Beijing was ignoring the environmental consequences of its dramatic economic progress.

''Swift economic growth is frequently achieved due to a scornful attitude to ecology," Ishayev, governor of the Khabarovsk region, said at an emergency meeting.

Ishayev said the benzene is expected to cross the Russian border on Dec. 13, and officials have said that the consequences of the spill, would adversely affect the region for a year.

A report on a website run by China National Petroleum Corp. said yesterday that Yu Li, who is the general manager of the subsidiary Jilin Petrochemical Co., was among the managers who ''had responsibility" for the benzene plant explosion and spill on Nov. 13, and that he would lose his position as a result of the disaster.

The accident killed five people and dumped 100 tons of benzene and other chemicals into the Songhua, creating a 50-mile-long slick.

The government attributed the accident to human error in a tower that processed benzene, a potentially cancer-causing compound used in making plastic, detergents and other products.

The report said Yu also was credited with minimizing injuries and helping investigators.

It did not say whether he would leave the company or face criminal charges.

Yu was the second major figure to have lost his job over the disaster. The director of China's environmental protection agency, Xie Zhenhua, resigned on Friday.

The manager of the benzene facility at the Jilin plant, Shen Dongming, and a boss of a safety workshop, Wang Fang, also were removed from their posts, according to the CNPC website.

There has been no sign of possible punishment for Communist Party officials who were accused of trying to conceal the spill, the element of the disaster that has led to the most public anger in China.

The spill forced a five-day shutdown in running water for 3.8 million people in the industrial center of Harbin. Other communities that rely on the Songhua for drinking water also have suspended water service.

In Jiamusi, the city shut down one water plant near the Songhua to prevent contamination. But the local government said it could continue to supply running water from wells. A newly built water plant farther from the river was also rushed into operation.

The disaster prompted Chinese leaders to issue an unusual apology to the Chinese public and to Moscow. China has tried to repair relations with Russia by sending 150 tons of activated carbon to Khabarovsk for use in water-treatment facilities.

Still, China watchers said it was unlikely the unusually embarrassing incident would change an ingrained government practice of suppressing bad news.

In the emergency commission meeting in Russia, Ishayev noted that China has 16 petrochemical factories and the world's largest pulp-and-paper combine on the Songhua. All, he said, work with few cleaning mechanisms.

In Russia, the Songhua joins the Amur River, which passes through the regional capital.

Ishayev said tests showed the amount of the benzene in the river, while exceeding Chinese standards for exposure, was within the Russian safe levels. He said river ice was slowing the progress of the benzene, which crystallizes and freezes in cold weather. Much of the Amur is now frozen.

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