Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 15

The November 2005 benzene spill came as an unwanted irritant for Moscow’s and Beijing’s stated policy of “strategic partnership.” Subsequently, both sides went ahead with damage control measures, which were summed up at talks in Moscow.

To deal with the slick’s aftermath, a Chinese mission headed by Zhao Inmin, technical department head of China’s environmental agency, traveled to Russia. On January 17, the deputy speaker Valentin Kuptsov of Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament, met Chinese officials to discuss the spill. On January 18, deputy speaker Alexander Torshin from Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, met Chinese officials and hailed the joint work to tackle the spill. Yet he added that bilateral environmental cooperation should be further enhanced.

In response, Zhao Inmin reiterated China’s official apologies over the incident. He also said only 63 kilograms of benzene remained frozen in Songhua and Heilongjiang (Amur) waters, according to Chinese expert estimates. Zhao Inmin argued there would be no major contamination when polluted ice melts in the spring.

Previously, Chinese authorities estimated that some 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene were released in the chemical plant explosion in Jilin province on November 13. The incident entailed a 50-mile-wide toxic benzene slick into the Songhua River, which flows into the Amur River.

Yet Russia’s Rosprirodnadzor environmental watchdog deputy head Oleg Mitvol disagreed with optimistic Chinese estimates and said the progress of the benzene flow was just hampered by ice. After the bulk of the spill passed down the Amur, its residues are expected to remain frozen until spring, he argued. At that time, floods could carry them into the plains, polluting soil for years to come, according to Mitvol. He also pledged to continue monitoring the Amur’s waters until the end of 2006.

Mitvol happened to be the only high-profile Russian official who remained consistent in his criticism of China’s handling the benzene pollution. Last November, Mitvol accused the Chinese authorities of providing unreliable information about the movement of the spill.

Other Russian officials appeared to have reviewed their opinions over the benzene spill. For instance, during January talks in Moscow, Viktor Shudegov, head of the committee for environment, education and science of the Russian Federation Council, came up with a reconciliatory suggestion to draft bills in both Russia and China about obligatory insurance of environmentally hazardous facilities.

Incidentally, Shudegov was among those Russian officials who had indicated plans to seek compensation from China in international courts. Russia would request that China pay for damages, knowing that it would not do so voluntarily, he said last November (RIA-Novosti, November 25). Yet soon after the spill reached the Russian border, Russian officials stopped arguing that Russia is entitled to compensation from China.

On January 18, the Chinese mission held talks with a group of Russian officials headed by Nikita Bantsenkin, international department head, and Alexander Ishkov, state policy department head of Russia’s Natural Resources Ministry. Chinese officials reportedly informed their Russian counterparts about their findings concerning the benzene pollution. Following the talks, Russian officials opted not to question the Chinese findings. “Spring floods will not entail further nitrobenzene pollution,” the ministry said in a statement, citing Chinese information (Interfax, January 20).

Earlier in January, the spill itself passed Russia’s major Far Eastern urban centre Komsomolsk-on-Amur. Benzene pollution levels in the Amur River remained within permitted levels, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry said on January 6. Subsequently, the spill proceeded through scarcely populated plains until it reached the Pacific in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Last November, the Emergency Situations Ministry officials in Khabarovsk region expected that the pollution level in the Amur could have exceeded permissible norms by 7-10 times. Russian officials, however, subsequently reviewed their estimates and said that contamination from benzene spill dissipated to near or below permissible levels. Yuri Garbuz, head of Epidemiology center of the Khabarovsk region, said on December 23 that the Amur water was polluted by nitrobenzene, xylene and ethylbenzene, but he reiterated that the pollution near Khabarovsk was well below permitted norms.

As the spill moved toward Russian shores, top level officials in both Russia and China agreed to damage control measures. In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed to jointly tackle the chemical spill and work more closely to protect the environment in the future. They met on the sidelines of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum in Kuala Lumpur on December 13. Wen reportedly apologized for the chemical plant accident.

Putin dispatched Emergency Situations minister Sergei Shoigu to the Far East on December 14 in order to deal with a possible emergency in Khabarovsk region. Shoigu announced in Khabarovsk on December16 that the region was prepared to tackle the pollution. However, he declined to describe the development as an “emergency” or “emergency situation.” He said that declaring a state of emergency was out of the question.

Russian and Chinese authorities also signed an agreement December 12 to jointly monitor the waters of the Amur River (known as Heilongjiang in China) for benzene contamination. According to the agreement, signed in Khabarovsk by deputy governor of Khabarovsk region Guennady Pocherevin and head of international relations of China’s environmental agency Sui Qinhua, both sides would take up to 72 water samples per day. All samples would be divided into 3 parts: one for each side plus a control sample for a possible arbitration, the agreement says.

Meanwhile, there has been no talk of any international arbitration between the two nations. For instance, Viktor Ishayev, governor of Khabarovsk region, just hinted at compensation claims by saying on December 16 that the region would spend 200 million rubles (about USD $7million) to deal with the benzene slick. Yet he was promptly corrected by Kamil Iskhakov, President Putin’s special envoy in the Russian Far East, who said December 16 that the actual damage should be assessed first before claiming compensation from China.

Russia and China thus appear to be keen not to allow the benzene slick to become an issue in bilateral relations. The Chinese authorities came up with damage-control moves, including a formal apology to Russia for the spill. In response, Russian officials have stopped talk of compensation, at least in public.