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Russians Brace For Toxic Spill

The water taps in Igor Sukhrin's apartment are firmly shut off at the mains and he is keeping his teenage son out of school. The 46-year-old plumber is taking no chances as a Chinese toxic spill passes through this city in Russia's Far East.

He has forbidden his family from opening the taps, unconvinced by official assurances that the water is safe to drink as chemicals float through the river that feeds water supplies in Khabarovsk.

"I know that even evaporation from water can be dangerous," he said.

Like many others in the city, he has stored water in bottles, pots, canisters and other containers. "We can last for a week," he said.

The arrival of the slick after nightfall Thursday ended anxious waiting for nearly six weeks after an explosion at a chemical plant spewed deadly toxins into a river upstream in China's northeast, disrupting water supplies to millions of Chinese.

The most concentrated part of the slick reached the city late Friday, regional Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Vladimir Zhuravlev said.

"The concentration level of nitrobenzene, as before, is not exceeding the allowable limits and turning off the (municipal) water is not planned," he told The Associated Press. He said the high-concentration part of the slick should pass out of the city within a day.

The slick's arrival has been met with confusing official messages about the consequences of the benzene, nitrobenzene and other toxins, confusion that did little to reassure the city's 580,000 residents.

The water did not contain harmful levels of pollutants and could be drunk safely, the Kremlin envoy to the region said Friday after touring a water plant and laboratory where samples taken from the Amur River are being tested.

"We have carried out all our plans and the water itself is of good quality," Kamil Iskhakov said in comments televised on Russia's national TV channels. "There is no contamination whatsoever. Everything is below the norm. Khabarovsk residents are drinking normal water."

A regional official in charge of efforts to combat the Chinese spill, Vladimir Popov, even said that the tons of carbon filters used to cleanse the water of the chemicals meant that it was of better quality than usual.

"The water from the taps is even cleaner today than it was before the spill arrived," he said.

A top regional environmental official, however, Vladimir Ott, said earlier it was unsafe to use tap water at all, a warning that many residents heeded by filling bathtubs and canisters and buying up cases of bottled water.

On Friday, the water company in Khabarovsk reported a sharp drop in consumption levels, a duty officer told the AP.

Regional Gov. Viktor Ishayev, who, like other Russians, has denounced China for being less than forthcoming with information, appealed for calm Thursday, reassuring residents that neither municipal drinking water nor the city's central heating system will be turned off.

With water samples being taken regularly, emergency officials told AP that pollution levels were within the acceptable norms.

Still, "there's a very unpleasant smell in the water pipes," said Mikhail Finkel, a regional emergency official.

Some 100 tons of chemicals dumped into the Songhua River following the explosion of a chemical plant in China's northeast on Nov. 13. The spill caused the city of Harbin to shut down running water to 3.8 million people for five days.

Officials say the slick measuring 110 miles could pass by Sunday, but experts warn the effects will be long-lasting, since benzene and nitrobenzene are settling on the river bottom or sticking to the ice.

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