Why did it take five days for government officials to report an ecological and public-health disaster?
The river had a charm that its name lacks. "Zhuo Zhang River," people call it in Chinese, dubbing this tributary of the Yellow River with a murky hue, zhuo (浊), that would not wash away. It was an uncanny epithet, endowed as much by the browns of the Loess Plateau as by its dusted geopolitical location in China's industrial inland. Flowing eastward from headwaters in Shanxi, Zhuo Zhang River was the floor of factories nestled along the border of Henan and Hebei, two of the country's most populous provinces.
On December 31, 2012, the name of Zhuo Zhang River suffered a more deadly taint. Thirty-nine tons of aniline -- a toxic derivative of benzene used in dyeing processes -- sliced through a crack in pipeline in Changzhi, Shanxi, and quickly spewed downstream. Within days, both the river and a reservoir were contaminated. (According to official accounts, the reservoir was disused and absorbed 30 tons of the leaked aniline.) At a time when the flow of information was crucial, politics trumped life: The water supply to Handan, a major downstream city of more than one million residents, was not cut off until January 5, five days after the accident, when Changzhi officials notified the Shanxi provincial government for the first time.
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