China detains 7 executives over cadmium river pollution scandal

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
By Bill Savadove, AFP

SHANGHAI -- China said Tuesday it had detained seven company executives after suspected industrial waste discharges polluted a river with a toxic metal, threatening water supplies for millions.

The discharges have contaminated a 100-kilometer (60-mile) stretch of the Longjiang River in the southern region of Guangxi, sparking panic buying of bottled water in nearby cities, state media said.

One company — Jinhe Mining Co. — has been blamed for dumping cadmium, a carcinogen which can seriously damage the kidneys, bones and respiratory system, into the river in a spill that was discovered on Jan. 15.

Since then, the government has decided to go after other polluters, inspecting more than a dozen factories on the river and stopping production at seven plants, the China Daily newspaper said.

Authorities have taken into custody seven executives from companies deemed responsible for polluting the river, according to a Guangxi government statement provided to AFP on Tuesday.

The firms include the Jinchengjiang Hongquan Lithopone Materials Factory, it said, without naming the others. Lithopone is a pigment used in paint.

Guangxi officials and spokesmen for two of the cities affected — Hechi and Liuzhou — declined to comment when contacted by AFP on Tuesday.

A supermarket worker in Liuzhou said his store had been selling 2,000 bottles of water a day as frightened residents stocked up despite government pledges that the city's tap water was safe for now.

“Sales have been like this for a week. In wintertime, normal daily sales of bottled water are 100 to 200 bottles,” he told AFP.

Activists say officials in China often turn a blind eye to industrial pollution or even collude with companies, as they seek to push forward local economic development at all costs. On Tuesday, environmentalists criticized local officials, saying poor supervision triggered the pollution.

The initial spill happened in Hechi city but was now flowing downstream, endangering drinking water for 1.5 million people in Liujiang city, state media said. It was also approaching Liuzhou city, with a population of 3.7 million.

“It is a critical time right now, as downstream drinking water safety is in jeopardy,” Hechi mayor He Xinxing was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

Authorities have mobilized thousands of soldiers to dump chemical neutralizers into the river to dilute the cadmium, but levels of the metal were still over 25 times higher than the official limit in some parts on Monday. State television showed workers in protective yellow suits dumping bags of powder, identified as aluminum chloride, into the water to act against the cadmium.

Environmentalist Ma Jun, director of the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, said pollution involving cadmium — widely used in batteries — is worrisome since it tends to persist in the water supply.

“This water pollution can be very severe, since it was caused by a kind of heavy metal that cannot dissolve naturally and is highly toxic, which could make the pollution last for quite a long period,” he told AFP.

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