Russia's Amur River faces ecological blow from benzene spill

Saturday, December 3, 2005

KHABAROVSK, Russia -- Fishermen are quick to tell yarns about the big catch. But on the banks of the Amur River, the stories anglers lovingly recount are about fish that did not reek of chemicals.

A toxic spill heading this way from China is just the latest ecological blow to the Amur, whose basin is home to 5 million Russians. For years, residents have been warned not to swim in the river, eat its fish or even drink water from their taps because of pollutants and bacteria.

This corner of Russia is being forced to cope with China's dramatic economic development, and must live with the runoff from some 80 million Chinese upriver.

Anywhere from 60 to 93 percent of the Amur's pollution comes from China, said Boris Voronov, director of the Institute of Water and Ecological Problems in Khabarovsk. Levels vary, depending on industrial production, water temperature and rainfall.

"In China, there's wild economic growth," he said. "There are no measures to protect nature."

The pollution problem began in the 1970s and has intensified in the last decade as China's development has soared, according to Voronov. He said he didn't know if there had been a previous accident on the magnitude of the Nov. 13 spill that sent 100 tons of benzene heading toward Khabarovsk.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said Friday it expects the slick to cross the border about Dec. 10 and reach Khabarovsk three days later. The ministry said it might take as long as five days for the spill to pass Khabarovsk, with 580,000 residents the largest Russian city in its path.

Anger over the spill sparked a small demonstration Friday at the Chinese consulate in Khabarovsk. Some 15 demonstrators from the nationalist Rodina party, joined by a handful of Cossacks in military uniforms, carried placards and chanted: "The Amur isn't a yellow river!" in reference to China.

Reassurances

Chinese Consul General Fan Xianrong tried to reassure them that China was doing all it can -- including a free shipment of 165 tons of activated charcoal to help filter water.

"The Chinese and Russian people will always be together," he said, adding that the countries should cooperate to protect the water. "I also wish the rivers would be cleaner."

Worries over the spill haven't deterred the few hearty souls ice fishing off Khabarovsk's shore at the junction of the Amur and Ussuri River, where shards of ice jut from the frozen surface like broken glass.

Using long spikes, the handful of fishermen -- and one woman -- jab to make holes where they deploy umbrella-shaped nets that fold up when pulled to the surface, trapping fish inside.

Words like "phenol" entered the local vocabulary a while ago. The chemical, used in industrial production, can be smelled in fish caught here beginning every January or earlier, the fishermen say.

Although people can taste and smell phenol in doses deemed harmless, extended exposure to high levels of the chemical can cause paralysis, organ damage or even death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"Who knows where the phenol comes from? There are bacteria and heavy metals too," said Pyotr Mazukov, 58, who remembered days when the small silvery fish he was pulling from the water wouldn't be worth his attention.

Fishermen say the fish used to be up to twice as big.

"China has lots of people ... if there's more people, of course there's more pollution," Mazukov said.

Sections of the Amur already are classified as highly polluted by international environmental groups. According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature, 23 percent of the water from Khabarovsk's city supply contains bacteria that can cause digestive diseases and 10 percent carries hepatitis A. Cases of dysentery and hepatitis A in the region are twice the national average.

Water expert Voronov says China and Russia have signed agreements to protect the environment, but no mechanisms are in place to enforce the accords. He said environmental impact studies should be done before any new facilities are built on the river.

The Khabarovsk regional government is also seeking money from Moscow to build a reservoir "so we won't be hostages to the carelessness of our neighbors," said Natalya Zimina, the regional government spokeswoman.

Until then, residents like Maria Volkhina will rely on a method that many locals named as their tried-and-true means of knowing when it's safe to eat local fish.

Shopping at the fish pavilion at Khabarovsk's central market, the 65-year-old teacher was undeterred by the impending arrival of the toxic spill.

"If the cat eats it, then it's OK," she said.

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