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Chemical spill viewed as Chinese ploy

NIZHNESPASSKOYE, Russia -- Bad fortune has floated down the river to Yekaterina Vityuk's wooden cottage.

Blocks of ice hide the toxic benzene slick, but the 74-year-old woman, who has lived her whole life on the banks of the Amur River, can't erase it from her mind. She cannot fish, or wash, or invite her relatives to stay.

''The Chinese have poisoned my life," she said with a sigh.

After weeks of frantic efforts to minimize the effects on the 580,000 residents of Khabarovsk, officials say the chemical spill from a Chinese factory upriver could reach city limits as early as today.

Workers from the Emergency Situations Ministry have set up camp next to Vityuk's village of Nizhnespasskoye, 50 miles from Khabarovsk, to monitor the ecological damage from the Nov. 13 spill.

Every three hours, scientists drill holes in the river ice and draw water into bottles suspended on strings. As prosecutors look on, they seal the samples and send them to Khabarovsk for analysis.

''I have nothing comforting to say," said Yevgeny Rozhkov, an engineer from the Far East Meteorological Agency. ''Other than benzene and nitrobenzene, we've found chlorine and phenol."

Khabarovsk regional Governor Viktor Ishayev has accused China of withholding information on the chemicals released in the spill.

Rozhkov said the situation could be worse than the water samples indicate because benzene and nitrobenzene are heavier than water and are settling on the river bottom or sticking to the ice.

''We are not yet registering a critical level of nitrobenzene in the water, but come spring this region will have a lot of unpleasantness in store," he said.

The melting ice will pollute not just the water, but also river banks, he said.

Khabarovsk authorities cut off water supplies to 10,000 people in southern districts early yesterday, then restored some in the evening. Residents of the three southern districts awoke to find notices posted outside their apartment blocks with a list of hazardous chemicals that could be in the water supply and their effects.

A top regional environmental official warned all 580,000 residents of the city not to drink tap water.

''We don't know how the situation will develop," said Vladimir Ott, the regional chief of Russia's Federal Natural Resources Service.

Since news of the spill, Russia has tried to minimize the effect on Khabarovsk by building temporary dams and using tons of charcoal to filter the water of the Amur River.

Upriver, Chinese workers were rushing to finish a temporary dam on a waterway along the Heilong River, which merges with another river to form the Amur, a Chinese official said Tuesday.

The chief psychologist in the Khabarovsk regional public health department, Yelena Panchenko, advised people not to panic.

''There's no need to read the newspapers or watch talk shows," she said on local television. ''You need to trust official information and then you'll avoid stress."

Frightened residents of Nizhnespasskoye followed the spill's progress on central Russian television channels -- all state controlled.

Alexei Kulov, 63, compared the situation to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which Soviet authorities covered up for days. ''Then the authorities were also reassuring people and saying that nothing terrible had happened," he said.

Still, he said he wouldn't stop fishing despite a ban authorities say could last as long as two years.

''Fish smelled like medicine before this, but I ate it and I'm still alive. Anyway, there's nothing else to eat," Kulov said.

Vityuk, by contrast, is taking precautions. She collected as much water as she could before the spill arrived and has brought her chickens inside her cottage.

From the dark streets of Nizhnespasskoye, which does not have a single street light, villagers can see the bright, multicolored lights of the Chinese city of Fuyuan across the river.

''The Chinese are just waiting for us to die so they can settle on Russian land," said Sergei Pomerantsev, 57, voicing a widely held conviction here that the Chinese are purposely poisoning Russians.

''Every year, there are more and more Chinese, and fewer and fewer Russians," he said.

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