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Don't Drink the Water
Chinese City Turns Off Its Taps

4.6 million people in a central Chinese city were left without water over the weekend after a water treatment plant found elevated levels of the carcinogen benzene on Friday. The city of Lanzhou turned off the taps after finding benzene levels more than 20 times what the government’s standards. As the FT reports, a recent leak in a crude oil pipeline is being blamed for the massive disruption:

A water channel between two water treatment plants run by French infrastructure firm Veolia in Lanzhou crossed over a corroded pipe belonging to China National Petroleum Corp, the country’s largest oil firm, the local government said on Saturday…Lanzhou residents have been complaining of smelly tap water since last month, with the local environmental bureau fielding 200 complaints on March 6 alone, according to local media reports.

Water for some of the city’s districts has been reportedly cleared for drinking, but many residents will have to continue to rely on bottled water for the time being. This is horrifying enough taken on its own, but some believe this could portend future problems with China’s hastily—and shoddily—built oil and gas infrastructure:

Executives at the two oil companies say part of the problem lies in China’s rapid and sprawling urbanisation, which has caused residential neighbourhoods to expand rapidly into formerly industrial areas at the edges of cities…Another concern is that some of China’s oil and gas pipelines were built with poor quality steel and other materials. Much of China’s oil and gas pipeline infrastructure lacks adequate sensors to detect the drop in pressure typical of a leak or breach or even basic data needed to monitor the system, according to a 2011 study by experts at a military university. That makes it easier for undetected leaking to pose a hazard.

China’s air pollution troubles have been well publicized recently, but its environmental woes extend well beyond its smoggy skies. There’s nothing like toxic air or carcinogen-laden water to stoke unrest; addressing these environmental concerns remains one of the top priorities for Beijing’s leadership.

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