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Russia Braces For China Spill

From the gleaming golden domes of the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Far East, residents of one of the biggest cities in the country's sprawling far eastern region were praying on Thursday that they will be spared the worst from a toxic spill headed their way.

Khabarovsk is bracing for the arrival of a slick of benzene that seeped into the waters upriver in China after a Nov. 13 accident at a chemical plant.

Regional experts said the spill is expected to reach the Russian side of the border by Dec. 11, give or take a couple of days. The slick will take another four days or so to reach Khabarovsk, about 124 miles from where China's Songhua River joins Russia's Amur River.

Residents of Khabarovsk, the largest Russian city in the slick's path with some 580,000 people, say they're coping with conflicting reports about when the slick will arrive, and wondering how long they'll have to go without water when it does.

"No one knows anything," said Lidiya Vladimirova, 65, shoveling snow near the small telephone station where she works on the river bank. "Nowadays, who's going to take care of you? You need to take care of yourself."

Vladimirova said she washes her hands with tap water and then rinses them again with other water she's stockpiled at home, filling every possible container in case authorities switch off the taps.

With mistrust and rumors swirling, the city government is releasing daily notices in newspapers and on TV trying to assure residents their water is safe for now.

"People remember Chernobyl, when the government didn't say anything for days or warn residents ... now they accuse the government of not telling the truth," said regional government spokeswoman Natalya Zimina. She said authorities planned to open a telephone hot line starting Friday to answer residents' concerns.

"We aren't hiding anything from the people," she said.

Helicopters are being deployed to ferry samples of water from upriver for testing at a Khabarovsk lab.

In the city of Leninskoye, close to the Chinese border, the benzene level is already 1.3 times the level considered safe, according to the Far East Meteorological and Environmental Monitoring Service. It is not believed that contamination was tied with the Chinese accident, since the Amur is already heavily polluted.

Deputy Mayor Andrei Vologzhanin said authorities would cut off the city's water supplies from the Amur if tests show a very high concentration of benzene and other chemicals when the slick hits the city. He told the ITAR-Tass news agency that the city had enough drinking water reserves to last at least 10 days.

Zimina said if needed, the city's water supplies would be switched off for about two days during the 40 hours they estimate it will take the spill to pass.

Some 117 trucks, everything from new fire engines to water tankers, will be deployed across Khabarovsk to provide water to critical institutions such as hospitals. Bread factories have stockpiled water and will keep running. Authorities are also flying in 600 tons of active charcoal to help filter water.

But water reserves for industrial use will last just three days. The city's energy facilities require purer water than that for drinking, spokeswoman Natalya Prokofyeva of the regional electrical utility told RIA-Novosti news agency.

That could affect the heating system in the city, which saw daytime temperatures of minus-13 degrees Celsius (8.6 degrees Fahrenheit) Thursday. Like much of the former Soviet Union, the city relies on a centralized hot water system piped through radiators for heating that works in tandem with electricity generation facilities.

But Zimina insisted the heating wouldn't be shut off, and that residents would be strongly warned against using the water inside the radiators for other purposes.

In China, Zhang Qingxiang, professor of environmental studies at Shanghai's East China University of Science and Technology, warned that the Songhua River's spring thaw could bring another wave of benzene contamination.

Authorities "should pay much attention next spring when the ice is going to melt," Zhang said.

Even more serious were pollutants absorbed into the riverbed, including by aquatic plants and micro-organisms, Zhang said. Declining water quality could take 10 years or more to recover, he said, time enough for fish to introduce benzene into the food chain.

"This is going to break the ecological balance," Zhang said.

News of the slick already last week sparked a brief water rush in Khabarovsk. Residents flocked to stores and emptied them of bottled water, with some profiteers doubling prices. The government has since cracked down on price hikes and neighboring regions pitched in with bottled water.

Still, that wasn't enough, said Tatiana Pavlova, who was skeptically regarding a palette stacked with 1.3-gallon jugs of water from the nearby Primoriye region at a supermarket.

"I don't know that brand," the 60-year-old retiree said as she turned away to scan shelves stocked with bottled water.

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