The mayor of a Chinese city is apologizing for waiting five days to report a chemical leak at a local factory.
By then nearly nine tons of a toxic chemical called aniline had spilled into a local river and contaminated the water supply of a neighboring city.
Anchor Marco Werman finds out more from The World’s Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Industry doesn’t always agree with the people who live around it, and in China, where there is a lot of industry and of course, a lot of people, the two often collide. The latest incident is pretty bad. In the northern province of Shanxi, the mayor of the city of Changzhi has apologized for a chemical leak at a factory. Doesn’t sound too bad, but it took five days to report the leak and at that point nearly five tons of a chemical known as aniline, used in making plastics, had leaked into the local river and contaminated water in a neighboring province, leaving millions without water. It’s a big mess. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad is with us from Beijing. Tell us what happened here with this spill. I mean how did a spill in one province end up affecting two provinces?
Mary Kay Magistad: Okay, so what apparently happened was–at least what the local government is saying–is that there was faulty equipment at a state owned cold chemical plant and that this caused a lot of this chemical, aniline, to leak into the river. It may have been faulty equipment. There have been leaks in the past into waterways and lakes where factories basically didn’t use the equipment that they had on hand because it was expensive to use. In this case, it may have actually been faulty equipment. What we do know is that the state-owned enterprise did not report the leak until it had been exposed through social media. And then the government had to respond to the anger online and then went to the state enterprise and said what’s going on?
Werman: So are you saying that if it had not been for social media this delay might have been much longer than five days?
Magistad: It may have been longer than five days, but let’s go back to 2005 when there was a similar leak of the same chemical on the Songhua River in northeastern China. There too there was a delay of about five or six days, which was how long it took for this spill to reach some major cities. So people knew that their drinking water was affected. In fact, the spill even reached Russia, so this became an international incident. Now, the difference is that at the time Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, didn’t exist yet, so it wasn’t broken online. It was broken by local people who were dealing with a water emergency. You know, they had to get bottled water trucked in. This happened actually just a few days after there was another coverup in Shanxi Province. A railway tunnel collapsed after illegal blasting and it killed eight workers. That too came out through social media. The government eventually had to react about five days later, so perhaps he’s serious about being sort of blindsided by local companies not reporting when they should have reported, but there’s also been a longstanding culture in China of trying to cover up disasters. And in the past it was possible because the government censors could issue directives saying you will report on this this way, you will not mention this. And state-owned media had to comply. The problem is there are now more than half a billion Chinese online and they don’t feel they have to comply when they see that some injustice has been done, and they want to let other people know about it.
Werman: Well, for more information on what this toxic chemical aniline is exactly, come to theworld.org. The World’s Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing, thank you.
Magistad: Thank you, Marco.
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What is aniline?
Aniline is an organic compound with the formula C6H5NH2. Its main use is in the manufacture of precursors to polyurethane. It possesses a somewhat unpleasant odor like rotten fish. It ignites readily, burning with a smoky flame characteristic of aromatic compounds. Aniline is colorless, but it slowly oxidizes and resinifies in air, giving a red-brown tint to aged samples. The largest application of aniline is for the preparation of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI). Other uses include rubber processing chemicals (9%), herbicides (2%), and dyes and pigments (2%). The principal use of aniline in the dye industry is as a precursor to indigo, the blue of blue jeans. Aniline is toxic by inhalation of the vapor, ingestion, or percutaneous absorption. (Sources: Wikipedia, International Programme on Chemical Safety)