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Crude oil leak disrupts water supply for 2.4 million in China

A bridge crosses the Yellow River in Lanzhou, China. Creative Commons: Tom Thai, 2009

A bridge crosses the Yellow River in Lanzhou, China. Creative Commons: Tom Thai, 2009

Officials in Lanzhou warned residents against drinking the city’s tap water on Friday after detecting the cancer-causing chemical benzene in the city’s water supply. Tests revealed benzene levels 20 times greater than the national safety standard of 10 micrograms per liter.

The announcement prompted residents of Lanzhou to flood into local stores to buy bottled water, and has renewed concerns about the quality of municipal water in China. About 2.4 million of Lanzhou’s 3.6 million residents were affected by the contamination.

In what appears to be an unrelated incident last month, complaints about smelly tap water surfaced in Lanzhou. According to China’s Xinhua news agency, tests taken at that time showed elevated levels of ammonia and nitrogen that were nevertheless within safe levels.

Friday’s spill has been traced to an aging pipeline owned and operated by Lanzhou Petrochemical, a unit of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). According to initial investigations, crude oil leaking from the pipeline contaminated at least one of the culverts that transfer water from a sedimentation plant to a treatment plant owned by Lanzhou Veolia Water Company.

Al Jazeera requests for comment were ignored by a Veolia spokesperson, and CNPC could not be reached for immediate comment.

After local authorities discovered the spill, operations of the culverts were suspended while fire engines were enlisted to transport clean water to affected areas. By Saturday morning, the pipeline leaks were under repair, and benzene levels have now returned to safe levels.

No contamination has been detected in the Yellow River, which flows through the heart of Lanzhou.

This incident is just the latest reminder of the dangers of fossil fuel extraction and use. In 2005, a similar incident occurred with catastrophic results when a petrochemical plant explosion discharged dangerous chemicals—including benzene—into the Songhua River near Jilin City, China.

In the wake of the Jilin spill, the Chinese government was roundly criticized for its handling of the situation. Environment minister Xie Zhenhua was forced out of his position in the wake of the accident, and news outlets used the incident to attack the government’s limited transparency and its frequent decisions to sacrifice the environment in exchange for rapid economic development.

Like the recent water contamination events in the US states of West Virginia and North Carolina, Friday’s accident illustrates one of the hidden costs of continued fossil fuel use. While the medium- to long-term impacts of burning fossil fuels—namely rampant climate change resulting in widespread desertification, sea level rise, food and water scarcity and more—have recently been well documented by the IPCC, the immediate effects of the fossil fuel industry can be seen on land and in rivers around the world.

While China remains the world’s largest polluter and has attracted considerable attention for its dangerous levels of air pollution, its recent expansion of renewable power sources signals that the country is starting to get serious about protecting its land and water resources while also slowing the pace of global warming.

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