Water sources tainted by chemical leaks are enough to worry the public, but the latest response to such a crisis is just as troubling as the crisis itself.
Environmental authorities in Shanxi Province did not tell the public that aniline, a colorless, poisonous liquid, had tainted a major river until five days after it was detected.
The nearly 9 tonnes of aniline from a local plant polluted a major river, forcing Handan, a city in the river's lower reaches that is home to more than 1 million people, to cut water supplies.
In the Information Era, crisis management skills are more important than ever if government authorities or companies want to maintain a sound reputation and serve the public well. But sadly, many of them still have a lot to learn.
The company issued a statement on Sunday afternoon, saying it reported the incident to municipal authorities shortly after the leakage was detected on Dec. 31, 2012, and was told to handle the issue itself.
A report was not submitted to the provincial government until several days later, when the company realized that more chemicals had been leaked than it had originally thought.
The Changzhi municipal government clearly failed the crisis management test -- a failure that has endangered millions of people and aquatic life.
Had the information been disclosed earlier, the pollutants could have been contained within a much smaller area of water and damage to public health could have been minimized.
It is time for authorities and businesses to realize that the costs of trying to hide a crisis are much higher than handling it in a timely manner.
They also need to see that revealing information themselves would help to curb the spread of rumors, which often exaggerate the facts and make accidents seem much worse.
Another company in Shanxi recently made a similar mistake by withholding information about an explosion in a railway tunnel under construction.
It took authorities five days to publicly discuss the accident and confirm that eight people died and five were injured. Until then, however, rumors had been swirling online that there had been many more casualties.
When fatal accidents like these occur, it is easy to hold individuals responsible, but the government could do a lot more in keeping these people on track, which could go a long way in preventing such accidents.
After the tunnel explosion, the State Council's Work Safety Committee promised to step up crackdowns on the concealment of fatal accidents and impose greater punishments upon those responsible.
The water pollution case offers an excellent chance for authorities follow through on such promises.
In addition to intensifying penalties, a better mechanism is needed to simplify procedures for reporting such accidents.
For example, parties responsible for accidents and supervisory bodies at different levels of government should be empowered to disclose information without having to seek approval from higher-level authorities.
If all sides involved in a public crisis live up to their responsibilities in a timely manner, those responsible will be able to focus on the problem without the distractions of also mitigating a public relations nightmare.
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