According to information released about the incident, benzene levels reached 118-200 microgrammes per litre on April 10 last year – a dozen or more times the permitted level of 10 microgrammes. The gap between the company identifying the high benzene levels and informing the city authorities stretched to 12 hours. It was also a further six hours after that before the city's water supply was turned off.
Breach of contract
The lawsuit argues that Lanzhou Veolia was knowingly supplying benzene-contaminated water to the city’s residents. And because the sample of water which highlighted the problem was taken on April 2, residents were unwittingly drinking contaminated water for almost ten days.
A lawyer for residents, Wang Zhenyu, told chinadialogue that the municipal water supply is a monopoly, and a contract exists between the residents of the city, including his five clients, and Lanzhou Veolia.
As the supplier of water for the city, the company has a duty to ensure that supply complies with national regulations, he added.
“If the water coming out of the tap isn’t up to standards, that’s a breach of contract, and the consumer has the right to seek compensation.” Wang Zhenyu added that the incident was a very simple and straightforward case of breach of contract.
Surveys conducted in recent years suggest that up to half of the tapped water in Chinese cities failed to meet standards.
Wang Zhenyu of Beijing Yipai Law said the Lanzhou case would more ordinary people aware of their own rights.
Failings in monitoring
Meanwhile, Wang Zhansheng, a professor at Tsinghua University’s School of the Environment, and a member of the expert group that investigated the incident in Lanzhou, said last year’s incident typified poor quality information about domestic water supplies, and failings in monitoring.
Wang Zhansheng added that although an increasing number of water companies are publishing monitoring data online, little trust is placed in those figures, as the companies are in effect regulating themselves. Health authorities should be responsible for checking and releasing data and water quality warnings issued immediately after a problem has been identified, he said.
“Currently if the regulators find a problem, the public aren’t told, they need to wait for the company to tell them. If it hadn’t been for the company announcing the contamination in Lanzhou, nobody would have had a clue,” Wang Zhansheng added.