Seems another Chinese chemical spill is on its way to the Russian Far East (RFE). ITAR-TASS out of Moscow reported today that “a five kilometre-long benzol slick resulting from another dumping of chemicals into the Sungari river from a plant in the Chinese province of Jilin is expected to reach Russia’s city of Khabarovsk on September 7-8.” The story goes on to say that the benzol may evaporate before it reaches the Amur River, the same one that was poisoned last winter by a chemical spill from a factory in the same Chinese province.

Not everyone has a China environment guru to consult on such stories, but luckily I do. She is my colleague, Dr. Jennifer Turner, who directs the China Environment Forum here at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Here is an email where she puts the spill in context:

It is heartening to hear that the Russians are demanding information from the Chinese, for water pollution has long been flowing into Russia from China. I think the huge benzene spill last year finally brought this issue to public light and has emboldened the local officials in the Russian Far East to become more vocal about the problem. Earlier this year governors in the Russian Far East expressed growing concern about the quality of water flowing from China.

This pollution problems exacerbates existing tensions in the RFE, some environmentally related. For example, Russia, home to about 20% of the world’s forests, now provides China with about 50% of the its  raw timber needs–more than the next twelve suppliers combined. Much of this timber trade from Russia is rooted in illegal logging practices. Other tensions include growing flow of Chinese settling and doing business in the RFE.

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Although the Chinese government instituted stricter criminal penalties on pollution spills (e.g., must be reported within 24 hours), it would appear this system hasn’t worked in this case. If it did the problem could be that there are no efficient mechanisms on how SEPA [State Environmental Protection Agency] should react and inform downstream communities. Clearly, there is a need for some kind of constructive transboundary institution that could not only help in monitoring the river, but perhaps help promote stronger river protection on both sides of the border. Definitely an opportunity here.

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