Oil Company blamed for benzene contamination and panic after Chinese city of Lanzhou declares tap water toxic, Residents flock to stores to stock up on bottled water

Oil company blamed for toxic tap water in China: Xinhua by AFP, April 12, 2014, The Economic Times
BEIJING: A Chinese oil giant was to blame for a toxic leak that contaminated tap water in a northwestern city, leading panicked residents to clear stores of bottled water, state media said Saturday. Tests conducted on Thursday and Friday showed that tap water in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, had as much as 200 micrograms of the toxic chemical benzene per litre — 20 times the national limit — the official Xinhua news agency said, citing local environment authorities.

A subsidiary of China’s largest oil company, China National Petroleum Company (CNPC), was to blame after crude oil leaked from its pipeline into the source for a local water plant, Xinhua reported Saturday. The leak came from a Lanzhou Petrochemical pipeline and led to the hazardous levels of benzene in the city’s tap water, Xinhua said, citing a local environment official.

Benzene is an aromatic, colourless liquid and a basic raw material used in the petrochemical industry. Human exposure to the chemical increases the risk of cancer and other illnesses.

Investigators found crude oil in soil along a duct between two water works owned by Veolia Water, a joint Sino-French venture and the sole water supplier for urban Lanzhou, Xinhua reported. The environment official said the leak had been located, and repairs were under way. The report did not say whether any action would be taken against CNPC. Part of the city suspended its tapwater supply and residents hurried to supermarkets to snap up bottled water after the excessive levels of benzene were reported Friday.

Stores and supermarkets ran out of water and many people complained of thirst
, Xinhua said, with fire engines delivering emergency supplies to downtown neighbourhoods. [Emphasis added]

Panic after Chinese city declares tap water toxic with benzene, Residents of provincial capital in west China flock to supermarkets to stock up on mineral water after government admits water supply contaminated by potentially deadly toxic chemical by Tom Phillips, April 11, 2014, The Telegraph
Nearly 2.5 million residents of a major city in west China have been ordered not to drink its tap water after the supply was contaminated with dangerous levels of a carcinogenic substance. Panic buying of bottled water broke out in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, on Friday after state media announced authorities had “detected excessive levels of benzene in [its] tap water system”.

Officials found 200 micrograms of benzene per litre – 20 times the acceptable “national limit” – in samples of the city’s water supply, according to reports. Exposure to benzene, a colourless liquid used to make plastics, lubricants, dyes, detergents and pesticides, has been linked to leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Consuming foods or fluids contaminated with high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, stomach irritation, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and rapid heart rate. In extreme cases, inhaling or swallowing very high levels of benzene can be deadly,” the website of the American Cancer Society warns.

It was not immediately clear how Lanzhou’s water supply had been contaminated but Xinhua, China’s official news agency, blamed an unnamed chemical plant. The plant had released toxic “waste water” into the city’s supply, Xinhua said. The Yellow River, which cuts through the heart of Lanzhou, a city of nearly four million inhabitants, had not been contaminated, government sources claimed.

The announcement that Lanzhou’s residents should avoid drinking tap water triggered panic, with locals “rushing to supermarkets or community grocery stores to stock up on bottled water”, Xinhua reported. “My family are all scared,” one woman, named only as Ms Luo, told the agency as she filled her trolley with water at one of Lanzhou’s biggest supermarkets. “My husband called to ask me to come here and snap up as much bottled water as I can.”
Photographs showed shoppers heaping crates of mineral water into their trolleys. The water supply to one part of the city, the Xigu district, was completely cut off, according to the state-run China News Service.

Shi Zifa, a chemistry professor from Lanzhou University, said drinking contaminated water could cause “acute poisoning”.

City officials said they would issue updates on the water’s drinkability every two hours.

Wang Zuguo, a resident, took to the Weibo micro-blog to vent his anger. “It is unprecedented for the capital city of a province to see its tap water so badly polluted that it becomes unsuitable for drinking,” he wrote. “How are several million people supposed to survive on bottled water?” “If we can’t drink tap water, what are we supposed to drink?” wrote another internet user. “Lanzhou has several million people, so how is “don’t drink it” a solution? What happens to those who can’t buy bottled water? Do they have to go somewhere else to drink and eat? Or are they expected to live on air alone?” China’s toxic skies make greater headlines but authorities are also battling a major water pollution crisis after decades of breakneck development.

In 2012 the country’s rivers pumped more than 17 million tons of pollution into its seas, according to official figures, including 46,000 tons of heavy metals.

In February, Beijing said it would spend 2 trillion yuan (£192 billion) on a water pollution campaign in a bid to improve water quality by “30 to 50 percent”. Nearly 60 per cent of groundwater samples were “heavily polluted”, to a 2012 study found. [Emphasis added]

China Takes On Big Risks in Its Push for Shale Gas by Keith Bradsherapril, April 11, 2014, New York Times [Emphasis and comments added]
Residents of this isolated mountain valley of terraced cornfields were just going to sleep last April when they were jolted by an enormous roar, followed by a tower of flames. A shock wave rolled across the valley, rattling windows in farmhouses and village shops, and a mysterious, pungent gas swiftly pervaded homes. “It was so scary — everyone who had a car fled the village and the rest of us without cars just stayed and waited to die,” said Zhang Mengsu, a hardware store owner.

All too quickly, residents realized the source of the midnight fireball: a shale gas drilling rig in their tiny rural hamlet.

This verdant valley represents the latest frontier in the worldwide hunt for shale gas retrievable by the technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It is a drilling boom that has upended the energy industry and spurred billions of dollars of investment.

Like the United States and Europe, China wants to wean itself from its dependence on energy imports — and in Jiaoshizhen, the Chinese energy giant Sinopec says it has made the country’s first commercially viable shale gas discovery. Its efforts could also help address another urgent issue, as Beijing looks to curb an overwhelming reliance on coal that has blackened skies and made China the largest contributor to global warming.

But the path to energy independence and a cleaner fossil fuel is fraught with potential pitfalls. Threats to workplace safety, public health and the environment all loom large in the shale gas debate — and the question is whether those short-term risks threaten to undermine China’s long-term goal. The energy industry around the world has faced criticism about the economic viability of vast shale projects and the environmental impact of the fracking process. But interviews with residents of six hamlets here where drilling is being done, as well as with executives and experts in Beijing, the United States and Europe, suggest that China’s search poses even greater challenges.

In China, companies must drill two to three times as deep as in the United States, making the process significantly more expensive, noisier and potentially more dangerous. Chinese energy giants also operate in strict secrecy; they rarely engage with local communities [Sounds like how companies operate in Alberta], and accidents claim a high death toll. The still-disputed incident in Jiaoshizhen has raised serious concerns among its residents.

Villagers said that employees at the time told them that eight workers died when the rig exploded that night. Sinopec officials and village leaders then ordered residents not to discuss the event, according to the villagers. Now villagers complain of fouled streams and polluted fields.

“There was a huge ball of fire,” said Liu Jiazhen, a mustard greens farmer with three children who lives a five-minute walk from the site. “The managers here all raced for their lives up the hill.” Ms. Liu said that the flames rose higher than the pines on a nearby ridge, covering the steel frame of the rig, which is nearly 100 feet high. The flames burned for hours, she said.

Sinopec describes the incident as a controlled flaring of gas and denies that anybody died. While the company would not speak in detail about its shale projects, Sinopec said it ran its operations safely and without harm to the environment. [Sounds just like what companies, politicians and regulators say when things go terribly wrong in Alberta!] Li Chunguang, the president of Sinopec, said in an interview in late March that nothing had gone wrong in Jiaoshizhen. “There is no basis for this,” he said.

The bustling activity in Jiaoshizhen indicates a significant find for Sinopec. Feeder pipes connect some of the dozen or so drilling sites, and 100 more wells are planned. Bright blue, boxy equipment for gas compression is being installed on large, flat lots next to at least two of the drilling rigs. A two-lane road has been paved across a mountain pass from Fuling, the nearest city, to help carry the 1,100 truckloads of steel, cement and other supplies needed for each well.The valley has been so isolated for centuries that residents of its 16 hamlets still speak a dialect that is distinct even from Fuling, 13 miles away. Jiaoshizhen had only two-story concrete buildings and single-story mud brick farmhouses last August; Sinopec workers lived in trailers while managers rented the upstairs of concrete homes. On a visit six months later, at least 20 tower cranes were erecting high-rises.The gas field in Jiaoshizhen “is the closest we have in China to a breakthrough project,” said Gavin Thompson, the head of Asia and Pacific gas and power research at Wood Mackenzie, one of the largest energy consulting companies. He noted, however, that Sinopec was providing few details and that he, like most Western experts, had not been able to visit the valley.

Chris Faulkner, the chief executive and president of Breitling Energy, a Dallas company that has advised Sinopec on its drilling in western China for four years, said that the energy giants’ reluctance to have open discussions about health, safety and environmental issues might prompt communities to fear the worst. “If they think that they’re going to go out and drill 1,000 wells, and no one is going to Google ‘fracking,’ they’re fools,” he said, adding that even in China, “the days of ‘shut up and be quiet’ are gone.”

Scant information is publicly available about the safety and environmental records of the politically powerful, mostly state-owned oil and gas industry. [Frac and drilling secrets also abound in Canada] …

In Jiaoshizhen, after the blast, worries linger about the impact on the residents’ health and their fields. Villagers said in interviews in August and February that the fast-spreading gas they encountered last year had been foul-smelling. Sinopec said that it had done air tests and not found any toxic pollution, although it declined to identify the gas. [Just like companies and the regulators do in Alberta!]

The gas evoked particular fear here because drilling by China National Petroleum in 2003 about 120 miles to the northeast released toxic gases that killed 243 people and sickened thousands.
That accident involved conventional gas exploration, however, not fracking.

Residents here also worry about diesel runoff from the drilling sites, tainting local streams and at least one shallow well. The drilling “makes so much noise and the water that comes down the mountain has become so much dirtier to drink; now it smells of diesel,” said Tian Shiao Yung, a farmer.

Sinopec said that it temporarily provided drinking water to residents after drilling foam surfaced in a nearby cave last spring, and it changed its drilling practice. The company said that subsequent tests had shown the local water to be “drinkable.” [Companies and regulators claim that too, for toxic and explosive contaminated drinking water in Alberta]

Despite her complaints, Ms. Tian, like every other resident interviewed, welcomed the drilling for one reason: money. Sinopec rents land from farmers for 9,000 renminbi, or $1,475, per acre each year. Farmers earn that much money from growing crops only in the best years, and then after hundreds of hours of labor. “Farmers don’t mind; now they can buy their rice instead of having to grow it,” Ms. Tian said, adding: “I’m still drinking the water.” [Just like most Albertans do, when the regulators and companies tell them to keep drinking and bathing in their polluted water and living with hydrocarbon fumes venting from their water taps]

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