The current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is not the only example of how a problem originating deep inside the borders of one country can quickly spread to others. Namely, an industrial accident in Northeastern China has just released 2.53 million cubic meters of highly poisonous industrial waste into a tributary of the Sungari River. The Sungari flows into the Amur, which forms the border between the Russian Far East and Northeastern China. Many Russians as well as Chinese rely on these waters for personal consumption, food and business. The accident, which took place on March 28, has already forced some cities on the tributary of the Sungari to stop using water from this source. The incident has raised fears that the poisonous waste will spread first to the large Chinese city of Harbin, located on that river, and then to Russian population centers along the Amur (Ussurmedia.ru, April 6).
The Chinese have responded in the same way as they did to initial reports about the coronavirus. Officials have downplayed the threat both locally and at the national level, suggesting that they have already contained the problem. However, hundreds of specialists were reportedly dispatched to the region and appear to be considering measures akin to those taken in November 2005, when a similar industrial spill from the same site threatened Harbin. At that time, the authorities threw up a dam to prevent the various rare earth metals spilled into the river from moving rapidly downstream (Ekd.me, March 31).
Whether the Chinese will take equally drastic, and thus successful, measures in this case remains to be seen, but there are three reasons why Russians in the Far East are likely to be skeptical that, even if Beijing reacts quickly, they will be able to dodge the bullet. First, following media reports about China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, there is increasing skepticism about any claims by the Chinese government. Second, in the case of industrial spills, China has been just as reluctant as in the case of the COVID-19 outbreak to allow outside experts to come in and see what is actually happening. And third, Russians know that the real threat from this industrial spill will come later, when floods dramatically increase the water flow through this watershed and push the chemical toxins downstream more rapidly. Those seasonal floods are now only weeks away, unlike the situation 15 years ago, when China had months to respond. Some are also concerned that the new leak, which involves different contaminants, may act differently than the one in 2005.
Yevgeny Simonov, a Russian environmental activist with ties to the international group Rivers Without Borders, says there are genuine reasons for concern; but up to now, not enough is known about what is actually happening inside China to justify panic (Riverswithoutborders.org, accessed April 7; Sibreal, April 3). He provides the most complete public account of what has taken place in China and what may happen in Russia as a result. His analysis contains some basis for optimism that this will not be the disaster it appears to be—at least for Russia—but also some justification for a more pessimistic reading of the situation.
The problem began ten days ago, Simonov relates, at China’s giant Luming Molybdenum Plant, which processes 50,000 tons of ore every day—some 15 million tons every year—and has maintained production despite falling demand because of the closure of other molybdenum miners and processors in Latin America. The process of extracting the valuable mineral from the ore results in an enormous amount of toxic byproducts. At the end of last month, piles of it reaching 196 meters high suddenly collapsed and slid into the river, presumably killing any animal life there and making the nearby water, at a minimum, dangerous for human consumption (Sibreal, April 3).
Since the Chinese have not been more forthcoming, Simonov says the 2005 accident may provide a model of what may happen. At that time, the contamination of the river with poisonous minerals from Luming sparked panic in Harbin and prompted China to institute new monitoring measures. Due to fears that the poisons were spreading to the shared Amur River, Russia demanded precise information on the accident. Moscow later sought and then signed a bilateral accord with Beijing on environmental monitoring of trans-border rivers like the Amur. In the intervening years, there have not been any additional major accidents of this kind, and Beijing imposed major fines on plants in the region for improper handling of waste products—most recently, and ironically, only eight days before the current disaster happened (Sibreal, April 3).
“Just how dangerous what has occurred will turn out to be,” Simonov says, “one can only guess” (Sibreal, April 3). It is possible that the Chinese will contain the spill and that waste will not spread down the Sungari to the Amur. However, this time, the waste in the spill is known to include many dangerous substances that are not subjected to monitoring under the existing Russian-Chinese agreement. In addition, China has been releasing conflicting accounts of the situation, telling its own people one thing and outsiders, including Russians, something quite different.
Simonov says he does not expect any serious problem from this spill for Russia in the next few weeks. The tributaries of the Sungari are small and, at this time of year, have relatively meager flows. Once the spring floods come later this month and next, however, that will change, and the dangers both for Harbin and possibly Russian cities will likely increase. Given that possibility, he suggests, Russian officials should be taking action now to put more pressure on China to release information, collect more data themselves on the Amur, and plan for what they will do if the poisonous waste reaches Russian population centers (Sibreal, April 3).
At a minimum, this accident and China’s response to it, coming as they do on the heels of the COVID-19 debacle, will deepen Russian suspicions about China more generally and make cooperation between Moscow and Beijing that much more difficult.