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Cancer-Causing Chemical Pollutes Chinese City Lanzhou's Water Supply

Local authorities in Lanzhou have warned residents against drinking tap water due to an outbreak of severe pollution in its water supply, prompting scenes of frantic bottled water purchases across the city's supermarkets.

An excessive amount of benzene, a highly carcinogenic chemical, has been detected in the city's water supply system, according to the local government. At one point, the benzene found in the tap water had spiked to a dangerous level 20 times what is considered to be safe. 

Lanzhou, an industrial city in northwestern China, depends largely on the Yellow River for its water supply. In recent years, this city of four million has seen a wave of investment frenzy as the state rolled out various initiatives to lift the economic standing of the underdeveloped western regions. 

lanzhou

Lanzhou residents snatched up bottled water after the local government issued warnings not to drink tap water. Photo Courtesy Sina Weibo User Wangyangyagn de Xiaopengyou.

French water treatment company Veolia, the main water supplier in Lanzhou, told state-run Xinhua news agency that the polluted water might be caused by local petrochemical companies. 

The information office in Gansu province, where Lanzhou is the capital city, posted this message on its official account on Twitter-like Sina Weibo: 

【未来24小时兰州居民不宜饮用自来水】4月11日凌晨3时起,兰州威立雅水务公司向水厂沉淀池投加活性炭,吸附有机物降解苯对水体的污染。11日上午11时,停运北线自流沟,排空受到污染的自来水。在此期间,市区降压供水,高坪及边远地区停水,限制生产性用水。未来24小时自来水不宜饮用,其他生活用水不受影响。

Tap water is not suitable for Lanzhou residents to drink during the next 24 hours. Starting from 3 a.m. April 11, Lanzhou Veolia has put activated carbon into the company's sedimentation tanks to absorb organic material in an effort to dissolve the benzene. At 11 a.m. April 11, it suspended operation of the northern ditch facilities to get rid of the benzene-polluted water. During this time, water in the urban area of the city will be provided via depressurisation technics, but the water supply in Gaoping district and remote areas will be suspended. Water use in factories will be restrained. In the next 24 hours, running water will not be suitable for drinking, and other kinds of water will not be affected.

Local media reported that Lanzhou residents had complained about smelly tap water last month, but city officials claimed the water quality was up to standards. A number of residents who spread the word of contamination back then were labeled as “rumour-mongers” and “dealt with” according to law. 

The water crisis in Lanzhou underscores the runaway pollution that has transfixed the nation as grassroots environmental activism begins to gain traction in China. In 2013, a prominent blogger and former journalist initiated an online campaign calling for netizens to snap photos of polluted rivers in their hometown.   

Lanzhou water contamination was one of the top three trending topics on Weibo as of Friday night. 

The Beijing news offered this update on its official Weibo account: 

【已切断污染源 政府免费提供安全水】兰州市应急处置领导小组基本找准了污染点,并马上予以切断。有关方面正从周边地区调运桶装水和瓶装水,将通过各区政府和辖区街道、社区,向广大市民免费提供

【The pollution source has been cut off. Government will offer free safe water】 Lanzhou city's emergency team has narrowed down the pollution source and ordered it to be cut off. Relevant departments have been gathering bottled water and buckets of water from neighbouring areas, and these will be handed to residents via different administrative departments and organizations.

Weibo users criticized the government for allowing a non-Chinese company to manage the city's water systems. Comedian artist Zhang Gang complained:

 呼吁兰州政府调拨安全的饮用水,向市民免费发放!给出正面、准确的解释!接连不断的水污染让百姓情何以堪?洋鬼子控股的自来水厂能相信吗?把自来水厂卖给法国人,谁卖的?谁同意的?

I call on the Lanzhou government to collect safe drinking water and give it for free to citizens! It needs to give an accurate and direct answer! How embarrassing the continuous water pollution is to common folks. Can we have faith in water supply companies controlled by foreigners? Who decided to sell the water supply company to the French? Who did it? And who signed off on it?

Beijing Chuzi, a Weibo user with over half a million followers, wrote

这是政府做的最傻逼的一件事。最应该国营的放给外人做。我能不怀疑有人从中赚大钱么

This is the stupidest thing the government has done. It hands over [the water service] to foreigners when it supposedly should be government-run. I suspect somebody might have profited from the deal.

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