Oil leak and cover-up in Lanzhou water scare

Lanzhou's water test site (Source: People Online)

Lanzhou’s water test site (Source: People Online)

On April 11, the Lanzhou government revealed that Veolia Water, a French joint venture company that supplies water to the city, had measured benzene levels of 78 micrograms per liter, far higher than the national limit of 10 μg/L, in one of the city’s supply pipelines. The city government set an investigation team to work and cautioned residents not to drink tap water for the next 24 hours.

At a press conference on April 13, Zheng Zhiqiang 郑志强, deputy head of the investigation team, blamed the problem on two underground oil leaks, one in 1987 and a second in 2002.

Apart from questions about the cause of the contamination, Lanzhou residents are also upset at the delay in notifying the public of the problem. The initial timetable of the incident put Veolia’s discovery of the problem in the afternoon of April 10, but on April 13, Zheng Zhiqiang said that Veolia’s water line tests on April 2 already showed benzine levels above the national limit, at 10.66 and 13 μg/L. The company then discovered seriously elevated levels at 3pm on April 10 and filed its report late that night; the government learned about the problem at 7am April 11 and informed the public at noon.

In an April 14 article, China National Radio posed the question:

It only filed a report nearly 12 hours after discovering seriously elevated benzine levels, and the public was only notified after nearly 24 hours. Water safety is the concern of more than a million inhabitants of the city. As the sole supplier of water to Lanzhou, were Veolia’s actions in compliance?

National Business Daily quoted experts who suggested that pollutants had likely entered Lanzhou’s water supply through seams its aging cement pipelines. The paper intimated that Veolia had neglected its duty to conduct proper upkeep, possibly by handing over actual operational duties to a subsidiary in which it does not have a controlling stake. 

Links and sources
China National Radio 中国广播网: 兰州水污染应急措施基本解除 疑似延报情节浮出水面 (2014-04-14)
National Business Daily 每日经济新闻: 威立雅的中国“水生意”:高溢价收购拷问系统维护质量 (2014-04-14)
People Online 人民网: 记者首次镜头直击兰州威立雅自来水厂自流沟 (2014-04-12)
People Online 人民网: 
兰州市政府回应自来水发生苯指标超标:未来24小时居民不宜饮用自来水 (2014-04-11)
Veolia Water 威立雅水务中国: Homepage