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Russian nature minister to embark on China visit


BEIJING, February 21 (RIA Novosti, Alexei Yefimov) - Russia's natural resources minister is embarking Tuesday on a working visit to neighboring China, where he will meet with officials to discuss common environmental issues.

According to the Natural Resources Ministry, Yury Trutnev is expected to meet with Chinese environment chief Zhou Shenxian to sign a memorandum of understanding and thereby pledge to conduct joint monitoring of rivers and other water bodies along the lengthy Russian-Chinese border.

Liu Ming, a spokesman for China's State Environment Protection Administration, said in December that signing the memorandum became essential following a blast at a Chinese petrochemicals factory in November 2005, when some 100 million metric tons of benzene and other toxic substances spilled in the Songhua River, which feeds into Russia's Amur.

According to Russian data, as many as 20 million people in northeastern China suffered from the hazardous effects of the explosion, while the six million residents of the city of Harbin had their taps turned off for five days

In mid-December, the benzene slick reached the Amur River, and passed the regional center of Khabarovsk, which is home to 600,000 people, bordering on China, before falling into the Sea of Okhotsk.

China reportedly plans to allocate about $3.2 billion for the construction of purification facilities on the Songhua River.

Russian Ambassador to China Sergei Razov said in late December that the Songhua accident was a lesson to be learned by both countries. He said it would prompt the authorities to pay greater attention to environmental problems in the rivers along the common border.

Commenting on the planned measures, Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia's Federal Natural Resources Service, said in January that the Russian rivers of Amur, Irtysh, and Argun had also been affected by the toxic spill and hoped purification facilities would be built on those rivers as well.

Mitvol earlier accused Beijing of seemingly downplaying the scale of the November 13 blast and referred to Russian experts who said the concentration of deadly toxins in the Amur River was still above safety levels.

Environmentalists said the aftermath of the accident could be assessed with greater precision in spring when ice had thawed. However, it is clear that the slick continues to pose major risks to people and the ecosystem of China and Russia.

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