20080317-songua slick4 Xinhua env nes.jpg
Songua slick
According to Caixin, there were 18 major water pollution accidents between 2005 and 2013. In December 2005, toxic cadmium was released into the Bei River by a zinc smelter upstream from Guangzhou, forcing Shaoguan, a city of half million people, to halt water supplies for eight hours. The cadmium-containing water had been released illegally during an overhaul of equipment. A dam was used to trap the cadmium before it could contaminate Guangzhou’s water supply. In January 2006, cadmium was released into the Xiang River in Huanan Province, threatened Xiangtan, another city of half million people. The cadmium-containing water came from a waste-water ditch mistakenly diverted into the Xiang River. Some officials had been warning that such an accident was likely but were ignored. Afterwards the government prevented reporting on the spill. More than 73 major incidents of this sort occurred in a four month period at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. Many feel that many more incidents like this occur that go unreported.

In September 2006, Chinese authorities closed a factory and detained the manager and seven others after 10 cubic meters of a highly toxic chemicals were dumped into a tributary of the Songhua River, which had been fouled a year earlier by a huge benzene spill. In June 2006, a truck carrying 60 tons of potential cancer-causing coal ash overturned on a mountain road and dumped its load into the She Dasha River in Shanxi province. The river, already badly fouled by water from coal mines and steel factories, gave off a sour odor and left streaks of black along it banks. Almost all life — fish, shrimp, frogs — that lived in the fouled section of river died. There was a big worry that spill might reach Wangkuai reservoir, used as a back up water source for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

In August 2006, a tanker carrying 25 tons of caustic soda sank in the Xuefeng River in northwest China, poisoning the water supply for 100,000 people and killing one person. To remedy the situation the government dumped 10 tons of hydrochloric acid in the river to neutralize the soda. In April 2007, water was cut off to 150,000 villagers living along the Hinghe River after high levels of lead were found in the river. In February 2008, a tanker truck carrying more than 30 tons of sulfuric acid crashed on a highway between Anning and Chuxiong in Yunnan Province, spilling much of its contents into a river alongside the highway and causing “serious pollution.”

In February 2009, a chemical spill led to the suspension of water to 200,000 people in Yanchang, a city of 1.5 million in the eastern province of Jiangsu. The incident came to light after residents complained of foul-smelling water coming from their taps. The most dangerous of the chemicals released was the carcinogen hydroxybenzene and the disinfectant phenol. The source of the pollutants, the Biiaoxin Chemical Company, was ordered closed. Two managers at the company were arrested. In July 2010, 3,000 barrels of a flammable chemical used to make rubber and adhesives was washed into the Songhua River near Jilin city in Jilin Province by floods.

Benzene Spill in the Songua River

In November 2005, an explosion at a petrochemical plant in the northeastern province of Jilin caused about 100 tons of highly toxic benzene compounds to flow into the Songhua River, affecting the drinking water of millions of people. Taps were turned off for nearly a week in the downstream city of Harbin, home to 9 million people, when the 80-kilometer-long spill reached it. People could not take showers, flush their toilets or wash dishes for a week. Water had to be brought in by truck. There was panic buying of water in shops, Scuffles and arguments broke out in the lines of people waiting for water.

Benzene is a carcinogenic petrochemical that can cause leukemia, blood disorders and kidney and liver damage. Other chemical that were leaked with the benzene included nitrobenzene and aniline, a poisonous liquid used to make dyes, resin, and rubber additives. They too are potentially cancer-causing. The spill was made worse because officials concealed the problem for 10 days, preventing immediate action from taking place, and allowing the toxic slick to break up and spread and reach far down stream. The announcement only came when large number of dead fish were seen floating on the surface.

The Songhua River is a source of drinking water for tens of millions of people. The spill reached the Amur River, a massive river and the main source of drinking water for eastern Russia, where some of it froze in ice and remained there until the spring thaw. Tons of carbon — used to filter out contaminates — was tossed into the water from trucks by soldiers to reduce the potency of the slick before it reached the Khabarovsk, a Russian city of 580,000. A 180-kilometer-long slick did reach Khabarovsk but it had been diluted enough so that it didn’t present a serious danger and water for the city was not cut off.

China apologized to Russia for the spill and promised to spend $1.2 billion to clean up the Songhua River. Officials involved in the cover up were dismissed. One committed suicide. Few lessons seemed to have been learned from the Harbin spill. During the year that followed there were 130 major chemical spills, or one every three days.

Toxic Spill in Yancheng

In February 2009, authorities from China’s coastal city of Yancheng, in the province of Jiangsu, shut off water and restricted the supply for several days following citizen reports of foul smelling water. An estimated one million of the city’s 1.5 million residents were left without water due to what government identified as the presence of two variants of carbolic acid — carcinogen hydroxybenzene and phenol — in the city’s water supply. [Source: Elizabeth Balkan,, February 26, 2009]

The local government identified Biaoxin Chemical Company as the party responsible for the tainted water, which illegally discharged the toxic chemicals from its facility, said state media Xinhua news agency. Xinhua also reported that the plant has been shut down and its top executives arrested. Officials have not provided any additional information; and state media China Daily reports that no one has come forward with symptoms of poisoning have not been independently confirmed.

Yancheng lays claim to a record of arduous efforts to protect the environment, including setting up stiff policies to monitor potential polluters. Known for its wetlands and salt deposits (Yangcheng literally translates as salt city), the city received over US$2 million in funding from the central government and Asian Development Bank in 2007 to restore and protect its wetlands.

The Yancheng National Nature Reserve occupies 453,000 hectares and is the largest coastal wetland in China with extensive mudflats along over 120 kilometers of coastline. About 3 million birds from 200 bird species annually migrating through the site. No information about whether the spill has affected the wetlands has been released.

Cadmium Spill Threatens Water Supplies of Major Chinese City

In January 2012, huge spill of highly toxic cadmium occurred Hechi City in Guangxi and flowed downstream, endangering drinking water for 1.5 million people in Liujiang City and Liuzhou City, with a population of 3.7 million.Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian: Chinese emergency personnel are erecting barrages and pouring hundreds of tonnes of chloride into a river in southern China in a desperate effort to prevent a toxic spill from contaminating the supplies of a major city. The flow of cadmium — discharged into the Liu River earlier this month — has continued despite three previous containment operations. [Source: Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, January 30, 2012]

Thousands of police, soldiers and fire brigade officers have been mobilised to halt the spill, which has sparked panic buying of bottled water and underscored the environmental cost that China is paying for its rapid economic growth. At Nuomintan dam — 60km upstream — cadmium concentrations are eight times higher than safety levels, prompting the authorities to warn locals not to drink from affected stretches of the river. Cadmium is a known carcinogen that can also damage the lungs, bones and kidneys.

Chinese media has been filled with images of paramilitary police in red and green biohazard outfits dumping clean-up agents into the river in clouds of yellow dust. Since the spill was discovered earlier this month, the authorities have been pouring more than 300 tonnes of polyaluminium chloride and caustic soda into the water each day in an attempt to flocculate (clump together) the cadmium so that it can be filtered. The source of the spill is still being investigated, but the possible culprits — six metal companies and a mine — have been temporarily shut down and the authorities say no new toxins are entering the water. In an attempt to dilute the contamination, the worst affected town of Hechi has increased the flow of water from an upstream dam.

AFP reported: China has detained seven company executives after suspected industrial waste discharges polluted a river with toxic cadmium, threatening drinking supplies for millions, state media said yesterday. One company, called Jinhe Mining Co, has been blamed for dumping cadmium into the river, in a spill that was discovered on Jan. 15. [Source: AFP, February 1, 2012]

Toxic Chemical Spill in a Tributary of the Yellow River

The Zhuo Zhang River is a tributary of the Yellow River that originates on in the Loess Plateau and Shanxi Province and flows eastward through the industrial areas along the border of Henan and Hebei, two of the country's most populous provinces. Yi Lu wrote in The Atlantic, “On December 31, 2012, Thirty-nine tons of aniline — a toxic derivative of benzene used in dyeing processes — sliced through a crack in pipeline in Changzhi, Shanxi, and quickly spewed downstream. Within days, both the river and a reservoir were contaminated. According to official accounts, the reservoir was disused and absorbed 30 tons of the leaked aniline. At a time when the flow of information was crucial, politics trumped life: The water supply to Handan, a major downstream city of more than one million residents, was not cut off until January 5, five days after the accident, when Changzhi officials notified the Shanxi provincial government for the first time. [Source: Yi Lu, Tea Leaf Nation, The Atlantic, January 15, 2013]

"When I opened the tap this morning, there was first water in the color of rusted copper; even after half an hour, the sink was still a pool of yellow milk," a Sina Weibo user wrote on January 6, the first day of the mass water stoppage that crippled thousands in Handan. "Do you dare to cook with such water? I should have joined the water raid last night and bought some bottled water!"? But even with gouged prices, the precious liquid was hard to find. Rumors? circulated on the Internet that the city would be without water for three more days. Many residents — who literally woke up to a crisis — rushed to stores and bagged any beverages they could find.

Leslie Hook wrote in the Financial Times, “A toxic chemical spill in the heart of China’s coal country has poisoned drinking water for millions and sparked a public outcry across the country after local government officials took almost a week to reveal the accident. On Monday, the city of Changzhi, the coal town in Shanxi province where the spill occurred, ordered 112 chemical plants in the area to close for emergency inspections to check for “hidden dangers” in the wake of the accident. Downstream cities are implementing emergency measures to avoid tapping the poisoned water, including partially shutting off municipal water supplies in some areas. [Source: Leslie Hook, Financial Times, January 7, 2012]

“The Changzhi spill happened at a fertiliser factory on December 31, but local authorities did not reveal the accident for six days. A ruptured pipe accidentally released nearly 40 tonnes of aniline, a carcinogenic chemical that can cause damage to human organs if consumed. The amount of aniline released into the river is enough to contaminate a body of water the size of 3,600 Olympic swimming pools, based on China’s standards for river water. The spill was disclosed only after the toxic chemicals had already contaminated a large reservoir downstream that serves as a water source for two cities with a combined population of 3 million.

“Despite a rare apology from the mayor of Changzhi for failing to disclose the spill, public anger over the accident and cover-up reached a crescendo on Monday. One editorial in a state-run news service warned that water issues could easily escalate into a “flashpoint” for protest and dubbed the Changzhi spill “watergate”. In Handan, a city of 1 million that had municipal water supplies cut , local columnist Lian Peng posted on Weibo, China’s leading Twitter equivalent: “As a Handan citizen, I feel extraordinarily angry . . . Those who concealed the truth should be held responsible. Our information now is limited . . . We still don’t have a sufficient understanding of the issue of water resources. Sooner or later, we will pay a heavy price.”

“The big problem is again the covering up,” said Ma Jun, author of the book China’s Water Crisis, pointing out that a similar attempt to cover up a massive benzene spill on the Songhua River in 2005 exacerbated the problem. He said the impact of this spill would be amplified because it occurred in a very dry area.

100,000 Kilograms of Fish Killed by Ammonia in a Chinese River

In September 2013, Associated Press reported: “Chinese authorities have scooped up about 100,000kg (220,000lb) of dead fish they say were poisoned by ammonia from a chemical plant, environmental officials and state media said. The Hubei province environmental protection department, which was notified of the discovery in the Fuhe river, pointed the finger at local company Hubei Shuanghuan Science and Technology Stock Co. [Source: Associated Press, September 4, 2013 ~]

“Officials said sampling of its drain outlet showed that ammonia density far exceeded the national standard. The company has refused to comment. The incident has affected the nearby village of Huanghualao, where 1,600 residents make a living from fishing, said the village's Communist party secretary, Wang Sanqing. "The dead fish covered the entire river and looked like snowflakes," he said. He said the village had 150 fishing boats and could lose up to 70,000 yuan (about $100,000) a day. ~

“The environmental department warned the public not to eat the dead fish but said drinking water had not been affected. It ordered the company to suspend operations and fix the pollution problem. The official Xinhua news agency said about 100,000kg of dead fish had been cleared from 25 miles of the river but did not cite a figure for the number of fish. The environmental department confirmed "a great number of fish" had been recovered. ~

In May 2016, thirty-five tons of dead fish washed up in a Chinese lake. USA TODAY reported: “Residents of Haikou city on China’s southern Hainan island began noticing the dead white and yellow fish on Wednesday. The fish — members of the herring family — were likely pushed up an estuary by a tidal surge and then got caught in a pumping system that deposited them in the lake, according to, a local news website. More than 100 sanitation workers were mobilized to scoop up the fish which floated to the lake's surface over a period of two days. The workers bagged up the fish and sent them to garbage incinerators to prevent them being sold at a local food market, said. [Source: Hannah Gardner,USA TODAY, May 6, 2016]

13,000 Dead Pigs Found in Shanghai’s Huangpu River

In March 2013, the carcasses of about 13,000 pigs found in Huangpu River, which flows through Shanghai. were pulled from its waters. The pigs were thought to have been dumped by swine farms upstream in Zhejiang. Many of dead pigs were found have had the disease porcine circovirus. Around the same time 1000 dead ducks were found dumped in the Nanhe River in Sichuan province.

In an early report, Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, More than 2,800 dead pigs have been found in a major river that flows through Shanghai, igniting fears among city residents of contaminated tap water, according to state news media reports. Some reports said the pigs had probably been dumped by farmers into the Huangpu River, which slices through the heart of Shanghai. Officials were trying to determine who exactly had dumped the pigs. The numbers increased quickly over the weekend, and the total is expected to grow as search barges looking for pigs return to Shanghai. Shanghai Waterworks, which manages tap water in Shanghai, said Sunday night that the water still met drinking standards, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Shanghai officials said the group was now monitoring the water quality by the hour. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 11, 2013]

A sample of the river water tested positive for porcine circovirus, which officials said can be found in pigs but does not spread to humans, Xinhua reported. “So far, water quality has not been affected, but we have to remove the pigs as quickly as possible and can’t let their bodies rot in the water,” Xu Rong, the director of Shanghai’s Songjiang District Environmental Protection Bureau, told Global Times, a state-run newspaper. A statement issued by the Shanghai government and posted on its Web site said that there were piglets as well as adult animals weighing hundreds of pounds. Residents in Songjiang District, the area southwest of downtown Shanghai where most of the pigs have been discovered, said this was not the first time they had seen dead pigs in the Huangpu River. But this time, the number was higher than in the past, according to the city government’s statement.

A preliminary inquiry has found that the dead pigs originated in Zhejiang Province, which is south of Shanghai and upstream on the Huangpu River. Songjiang District officials said they were gathering all the dead pigs in one place to safely dispose of them, Xinhua reported. Officials are trying to track the source of the pigs from marks on their ears. Photographs of the carcasses floating in the river have circulated widely on the Internet. One photograph on the Web site of Global Times showed sanitation workers in orange vests and blue uniforms lifting carcasses from Hengliaojing Creek with long wooden poles. The accompanying report, citing a Shanghai news Web site, said the first batch was discovered in Hengliaojing Creek, near a water treatment plant in an area that is a protected water resource. Officials began sending out barges to collect the carcasses. Global Times said 12 boats were now involved in the recovery efforts.

A week or so after first dead were found, David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “The number of dead pigs found in a river near Shanghai rose to more than 13,000 over the weekend. Last Friday, the figure stood at about 7,500. The authorities, who are in the middle of a weeklong effort to collect the carcasses, are still trying to determine how the pigs died and why they ended up in the Huangpu River, which winds through Shanghai. The government has insisted that there is no evidence of an epidemic and that the food supply is safe. City officials also say the river meets national water quality standards. The authorities say they believe that many of the pigs came from the nearby city of Jiaxing, in Zhejiang Province, where there are major pig farms. [Source: David Barboza, New York Times, March 18, 2013]

In 2014 authorities pulled more than 100 dead pigs from the Ganjiang River in Nanchang city. In 2021 scores of dead pigs found along a section of the Yellow River. Bloomberg reported: “Dozens of pig carcasses were discovered in the Inner Mongolia section of the country’s second-longest river and some were rotting in the water, according to Banyuetan, a magazine run by state news agency Xinhua. Local authorities are investigating the source of the pigs and checking if they carried any disease, in addition to disinfecting the area. [Source: Bloomberg News, March 22, 2021]

Oil Spill from Pipeline Explosion in Dalian

China's worst reported oil spill occurred in July 2010, when two massive pipeline at Dalian, a busy northeastern port, exploded and oil poured into the sea, spreading over at least 165 square miles (430 square kilometres). The explosion produced a massive fire that burned for 15 hours. Two weeks after the explosion scars of the fire could still be seen on massive storage silos, covered in black soot. Five days afterwards Greenepeace estimated the oil had spread over 165 square miles (430 square kilometers) of water five days since

In late July, Chris Hogg of the BBC reported: “China is struggling to clean up what has being described as the country's worst oil spill, a fortnight after a fire at an oil depot caused crude to leak into the sea for several days. An army of volunteers and fishermen has been mobilised to help clean up the pollution from the area around the port of Dalian, one of China's most important strategic oil reserves.

“China says the oil slick is under control and has not reached international waters. That is thanks in no small part to the efforts of the fishermen. But conditions are grim for those involved. The scene at a small harbour where they are collecting the oil is like something out of the 19th Century. Fishermen covered in oil, some of them working just in their underwear, scrape up the toxic sludge that spilled out of the jars they have brought back from the open sea. No one is wearing protective goggles, facemasks or even gloves to protect them from the hazardous chemicals in the oil.It takes them four or five hours to sail back from where they collect the oil on the open sea. They have to wait until nightfall, when the temperature drops, and the oil is at its most viscous, to scoop it out.

Oil Spill from Offshore Platforms in Bay of Bohai

In July 2011, large oil spills occurred in China's largest offshore oil field, the Bohai Penglai 19-3 oil field in Bohai Bay off the northeast coast. The field is a joint venture between China National Offshore Oil Corp. and ConocoPhillips China. The first spill occurred around June 10 about 38 kilometres (25 miles) off the coast of Shandong province and was cleaned up in a few days. Another spill in late July was likewise said to be contained relatively quickly, the reports said. It was unclear what caused the spills, how many had occurred or and how long they continued.[Source: AP, July 1, 2011]

In late August 2011, ConocoPhillips said, it has discovered new oil seeps in an area of China's Bohai Bay where it faces a deadline to clean up spills from earlier this summer. Of 16 seeps found in the Penglai 19-3 oilfield, each about the size of a small coin, only two were still visible and known to be sometimes active, the company said in a statement. AP reported: “According to ConocoPhillips, the spills released about 700 barrels of oil into Bohai Bay and 2,500 barrels of mineral oil-based drilling mud, which is used for lubrication, onto the seabed. All but a small fraction of that oil and mud has been recovered, and the small amounts still emerging are from earlier seeps that have been shifting under layers of sand on the seabed, it says. But the State Oceanic Administration contends that monitoring by satellite, underwater robots and other means shows the oil is still seeping. It criticized ConocoPhillips' containment measures as stopgap and said the company may have caused oil to seep through faults in the seabed by putting too much pressure on the oil reservoir. Dong Xiucheng, a professor at the China University of Petroleum, described the accident as "unusual." "It is hard technically to find the reason and the exact location of the spill and to try to stop it since it is on the seabed not in a pipeline. Both ConocoPhillips and CNOOC must have tried to do it, but it takes time," Dong said. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, September 5, 2011]

The oil spills are posing political and technical challenges for the oil company far messier than the crude and drilling mud seeping from the seabed. Operations are currently stopped at 180 producing wells and 51 injecting wells, for a total of 231 wells, said a statement by Houston, Texas-based ConocoPhillips, which operates the field in a venture with state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corp. CNOOC, which owns 51 percent of the venture, said the suspension of production in Penglai 19-3 would reduce output by 40,000 barrels a day, in addition to the 22,000 barrels a day lost with the shutdown of the two wells where the spills occurred.

The spills unleashed a flood of criticism inside China over how ConocoPhillips has handled the cleanup. The State Oceanic Administration rejected the company's assertion that it had met an Aug. 31 deadline to completely clear up any damage and prevent further seeps. Chinese maritime authorities facing pressure from fisheries and environmentalists to minimize further damage to the already heavily polluted Bohai appear to have lost patience with the prolonged effort to staunch the oil seeps. "ConocoPhillips has not been able to address this problem for two months and the Chinese authorities are losing face. It's kind of an inevitable reaction to something that's been going on a while," said Thomas Grieder, analyst for Asia-Pacific energy at IHS Global Insight.

ConocoPhillips has pointed to safety concerns and other difficulties in capping and cleaning up the oil and mud in murky seas with minimal visibility. "Addressing the issue is rather complex," Grieder said. "They're trying to identify small cracks on the sea floor in a situation where you can't see much." The company said that divers searched the ocean floor and that remote-controlled robots were taking seabed samples to monitor the situation. The company said it was working with CNOOC on a plan to reduce pressure in the oil reservoir and was preparing a revised environmental impact report.

Image Sources: 1) Northeast Blog; 2) Gary Braasch; 3) ESWN, Environmental News; 4, 5) China Daily, Environmental News ; 6) NASA; 7, 8) Xinhua, Environmental News

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2022

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