Sunday, November 27, 2005


IT'S BEEN TWO WEEKS today since an explosion at a petrochemical plant in Jilin, NE China, dumped a big mess into the Songhua river, source for the drinking water for millions of Chinese and Russian citizens. Particularly hard-hit was Harbin, where almost 4 million people went 5 days without water service, which was restored early today. AP wraps it up via My Way here:

We've been hearing about the cloud. Let's talk silver lining.

Silver lining #1:

A lot has been made out of the size of this spill. A fifty-mile long section of the river flow was affected, and 100 presumably metric tons of benzene spilled along with nitrobenzene and ???

Benzene has an especially nasty reputation, likely worse than it deserves. Because of this, the "aceptable" levels are quite low. 100 tons is about 30,000 gallons, or about 5 or 6 big highway tankers.

The nitrobenzene also spilled is about ten times as toxic and just as carcinogenic, but this is politics, not science...

Neither chemical dissolves in water hardly at all, and benzene is lighter than water. The mix should form a discrete hydrophobic layer. Both are fairly volatile, and neither are persistent. There are a lot of other worse things they could have spilled.

This is no Exxon Valdez... Or Bhopal...

Wild guess: Nitrobenzene finds a lot of uses in the textile industry. This plant made feedstocks for dyes and maybe fabrics and plastics.

Silver lining #2:

A lot of Western environmentalists worry China is an environmental time bomb. Some of us think the west is "exporting" its pollution by relying on Chinese manufacturing. American, Japanese, and European environmental standards are a lot stricter.

Stricter today, that is. Thirty years ago there were rivers in America's industrial heartland that were known to catch fire. Thirty years ago the Willamette river at Portland, Oregon, was dead.

Back then, slicks of goo were common.

Then people got mad and did something about it.

China isn't the US nor is it "western" in most senses. Skeptics will point to China's often brutally strict government and usually subservient people as obstacles to better standards. Somehow, I doubt their reasoning. Several million people were just scared silly and left without water. The incident will have repercussions to Sino-Russian relations.

They blew a big chemical plant clear to hell, and millions of dollars with it.

The Chinese leadership is strict but not stupid nor deaf. I think "the people" are going to have something to say here and the government is going to listen. I think this incident, which isn't the first but just the most recent, is going to help to underscore a reality: If you want a competitive technological economy you have to have aggressive environmental standards. Workers need healthy cities to live in, and the costs of incidents like this one are unsupportable. Here the ounce of prevention principle applies. China has poured a lot of money and hard work into modernizing and it will go for naught if its squandered in this fashion.

Environmentalism makes sense - competitive sense. I think when the cloud moves on the Chinese are going find a way to profit from that silver lining.

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