Anywhere in or around the Number 101 Petrochemical Plant in Jilin was definitely not the place to be on November 13 2005. For that was the day when explosions ripped through the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation’s facility when a nitration unit malfunctioned. The sequence of powerful detonations lasted for an hour, shattering windows over a wide radius and starting fierce fires that would not be extinguished until the following morning. Six workers were killed with around 75 injured, many seriously.
The very real fear that there could be further blasts and possible chemical contamination caused the evacuation of 10,000 from the area around the plant. Suspicion that the disaster had caused severe pollution was eventually confirmed when it became apparent that a large quantity of carcinogenic benzene and nitrobenzene had leaked into the Songhua River. An 80 km (50 mi) toxic slick drifted down river, causing widespread disruption to drinking-water supplies as it went. Efforts were made to mitigate the disastrous leak – hydroelectric dams upriver opened their sluices in an attempt to dilute the dangerous level of benzene – but it was still more than 100 times greater than the national safety level.
China’s tenth-largest city was particularly hard hit. Harbin in adjacent Heilongjiang Province is located on the banks of the Songhua River downstream of Jilin, and public water supplies had to be cut off for more than three days as the pollution slick approached, causing great inconvenience to nearly four million inhabitants. With impressive efficiency, 100 new artesian wells were drilled to provide Harbin with uncontaminated ground water and ease the supply shortage, but the benzene continued to cause problems as it went on to enter the Amur River and passed through the Russian Far East en route for the Strait of Tartary and the Pacific Ocean.
When: November 13 2005
Where: Jilin City, Jilin Province, China
Death toll: Six
You should know: In typical knee-jerk fashion, the initial reaction of Jilin Petrochemicals’ management was to deny that pollutants had entered the Songhua River. Only when it became obvious that a serious benzene slick was heading for Harbin did they own up. The Chinese press was critical of the official response to the accident, forcing a senior government environmental minister to resign.