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China restores water after a toxic spill

HARBIN, China -- Water tainted by a toxic spill upstream from this northern Chinese city was declared safe for drinking today, five days after supplies to 3.8 million people were shut down.

The spill was a political disaster for President Hu Jintao's government. It also cast a harsh light on the environmental costs of China's breakneck development.

Hu's government has apologized to China's public and to Russia, where a border city downstream is bracing for the arrival of the 50-mile benzene slick.

''Harbin's water is now safe to use and drink," Xiu Tinggong, deputy director of the city's health inspection bureau, said on local television. ''Everybody can rest assured that the water is safe."

Running water was turned back on Sunday in Harbin, the capital of northeastern Heilongjiang province. The water was shut off after an explosion Nov. 13 at a chemical plant that spewed toxins in the Songhua River.

Beijing has offered no estimates on how many people rely on the Songhua for drinking water.

On Monday, 10,000 people downstream in Yilan County were without water service, China Central Television reported.

State media have accused officials of lying about and trying to conceal the spill -- the result of a Nov. 13 chemical plant blast in Jilin, a city upstream from Harbin, that killed five people and forced 10,000 more to flee their homes.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has vowed to investigate the disaster, and to punish those responsible.

But state media also have been portraying efforts to keep this major industrial city supplied with drinking water as a triumph for the communist system.

The disaster nonetheless highlighted the costs of China's economic development, which has lifted millions out of poverty but has left environmental protections in shambles.

In Russia, the Emergency Situations Ministry said yesterday that it was preparing to switch off running water in affected areas and airlift activated carbon for use in water treatment facilities to help absorb the spill.

The Songhua River flows into the larger Heilong River, which is called the Amur in Russia.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said the pollutants could affect 70 cities and villages.

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