SHANGHAI—The seepage of chemicals into a river connecting two north China provinces is the latest accident to highlight the country's serious water-pollution problem, and to raise doubts about whether authorities acted quickly to raise the alarm.
More than 39 tons of a chemical compound called aniline used in manufacturing and agriculture leaked into a disused reservoir and a local river in Shanxi province after a pipe burst late last month, China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported Sunday. Almost a quarter of that amount moved into the Zhouzhang River and flowed east toward neighboring Hebei province, prompting authorities in one city to cut off drinking water and those elsewhere to go on alert.
Some residents in Hebei's Handan city, where the service cutoff began late Saturday, said in telephone interviews Sunday that water was being restored throughout the day. Liu Donghua, a spokeswoman for the local water utility, said supplies were available to most of the city by Sunday morning and that national environmental protection officers are on hand to monitor the situation.
While the event appeared smaller than some of China's worst industrial accidents, critics pointed to signs that authorities took about five days to disclose it. Xinhua pinpointed the aniline leak to a faulty drainage valve at a plant owned by Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group in the Shanxi city of Changzhi, and the agency later said four company employees had been fired, including Tianji's general manager.
Earlier in the day, Xinhua quoted a company spokesman saying the chemical leak was discovered on Dec. 31. The news agency also said the incident wasn't reported to provincial authorities in Shanxi until Saturday, by which time it was already in the neighboring province Hebei. It also affected Henan Province, the government news agency said.
The phone of Tianji's corporate spokesman rang unanswered Sunday.
Ma Jun, director of the nonprofit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs in Beijing, described the incident in an interview as "serious" due to both the amount of pollutants involved and the toxicity of the substance. But he said the broader problem was the delay in making it public. "The government should do a thorough investigation," Mr. Ma said.
Aniline, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is an oily but colorless and water soluble chemical intermediate that is a probable carcinogen.
Changzhi, the upriver city in Shanxi province where the initial accident occurred, illustrates the challenges China faces in protecting its natural resources. In a marketing video, historic Changzhi bills itself as the nation's "attractive city" in the cradle of Chinese civilization, with plentiful clean water that runs through a rugged mountain range with Grand Canyon-like vistas. Yet Changzhi in the video also boasts an industrial backbone of coal mining, chemical production and steel manufacturing.
Users of Sina Corp.'s SINA -0.02% Twitter-like Weibo microblog service posted photos from Handan of store shelves emptied of bottled water and criticized the time it took for authorities to report the leak. Chinese bloggers also reposted a report from the national broadcaster China Central Television that included a photo of the Tianji plant's ruptured pipeline.
Water pollution is a serious problem in China, with garbage blamed for clogging dams, refineries for damaging marine life and fertilizers for ruining aquifers. Acute shortages of water through much of the country have been worsened by industrial accidents and often slow reporting by polluters. Still, it isn't clear whether the Changzhi incident shows a worsening of the situation or greater public attention to it.
Major pollution incidents damaged the Songhua River in north China's Jilin province in both 2005 and 2010, the more recent one involving thousands of barrels of colorless and explosive chemicals that bobbed in one of the river's tributaries for days. Fujian province's Zijin Mining Group Co. 601899.SH -0.26% admitted in 2010 that its slow response to containing refuse liquid at one of its facilities did enough damage to hurt the livelihood of fishermen. Massive fish kills two years ago in the Longjiang River in China's Guangxi province were blamed on a chemical company's cadmium spill.