HANDAN, China -- The first warning came in the form of dead fish floating in a river.
Then officials in this city got confirmation that a chemical spill had taken place at a fertilizer factory upstream. They shut off the tap water, which sent residents into a scramble for bottled water. In the countryside, officials also told farmers not to graze their livestock near the river.
The spill, which occurred on Dec. 31, affected at least 28 villages and a handful of cities of more than one million people, including Handan. Officials here were irate that their counterparts in Changzhi, where the polluting factory was located, had delayed reporting the spill for five days. For the past two months, Changzhi officials and executives at the company running the factory, Tianji Coal Chemical Industry Group, have generally stayed silent, exacerbating anxiety over water quality.
The conflict over the Changzhi spill has drawn attention to the growing problems with water use and pollution in northern China. The region, which has suffered from a drought for decades, is grappling with how industrial companies should operate along rivers. Local officials are shielding polluting companies and covering up environmental degradation, say environmentalists.
"Problems with water weren't so serious before, but they have become much worse with industrial consumption," said Yin Qingli, a lawyer in Handan who filed a lawsuit in January against Tianji, which uses water to convert coal to fertilizer at the factory in Changzhi.
Environmental degradation has led many Chinese to question the Communist Party's management of the country's economic growth. Addressing the problem is one the greatest challenges for the administration of Xi Jinping, the new chief of the Communist Party. Environmental issues will most likely be on the agenda at the annual meeting of the National People's Congress, scheduled to begin on Tuesday.
The results of an official investigation into the Tianji spill were announced on Feb. 20 by Xinhua, the state news agency, which reported that a faulty hose had resulted in the leakage of about 39 tons of aniline, a potential carcinogen, from the fertilizer factory. Thirty tons were contained by a reservoir, but nearly nine tons leaked into the Zhuozhang River, which feeds into the Zhang River that runs to Hebei Province, where Handan is, and Henan Province. The Xinhua report said 39 people had been punished, including Zhang Bao, the mayor of Changzhi, who was removed from his post. But the party chief, Tian Xirong, the city's top authority, was recently promoted to deputy director of the provincial Parliament.
Some critics say officials may be slow to divulge information because the acting governor of Shanxi Province, where Changzhi is, is Li Xiaopeng, the "princeling" son of Li Peng, a powerful Communist Party elder. At a news conference in January after news of the spill had emerged, the younger Mr. Li urged officials to make safety a top priority.
Handan officials first got a tip about a potential spill on Jan. 4 from a water management agency upstream. But when they tried contacting Changzhi officials, there was no response. "After more than 30 calls, we still weren't able to reach them," a Handan environmental official told Xinhua. Only the next day did Changzhi officials agree to meet with Handan officials.
At least two managers of Tianji have been fired, but the company, which is the foundation of Changzhi's economy, appears to have suffered no other significant consequences. It is one of many companies in China's booming coal-to-chemicals industry, in which a water-intensive gasification process is used to convert coal to chemicals that are critical for a wide range of products. The process results in large amounts of wastewater that is supposed to be treated and then contained.
After sending a team to Handan in January, Greenpeace East Asia issued a report on the spill. It said that there were about 100 coal-to-chemical factories on the upper reaches of the Zhuozhang River. "There is a history of clashes between heavily water-consuming coal-to-chemical factories and citizens downstream who are trying to compete for water to drink," the report said. Larger factories like those of Tianji use 2,000 to 3,000 tons of water per hour, equivalent to the amount of water that more than 300,000 people use in a year.
The factory in Changzhi dumps more than six million tons of wastewater per year, about 30 percent of the water taken from the river, according to Greenpeace. The wastewater is supposed to drain into a receptacle.
Greenpeace said Tianji is "notorious for its pollution." In 2010 and 2011, Tianji had been judged by Shanxi's environmental protection bureau to be polluting above normal levels in four quarters and was fined each time. Tianji's pollution was abnormally high throughout most of 2011, so provincial officials asked the Changzhi environmental protection bureau to monitor the factory, Greenpeace reported.
On Jan. 9, the Handan Winter Swimming Association announced that it had filed a lawsuit in a Handan court against Tianji, seeking more than $3 million in compensation. But like the lawsuit of Mr. Yin's, it has gone nowhere. Mr. Yin said he had been asked by local officials to withdraw his lawsuit. The Handan officials had entered into secret negotiations with their Changzhi counterparts for compensation.
Calls to the Changzhi propaganda department and Tianji seeking comment went unanswered. Mr. Zhang said on Jan. 7 that an initial assessment of the spill had inaccurately put the aniline leak at 1.5 tons, not important enough to require notification of officials, according to Chinese news reports. Wang Junyan, Tianji's general manager, apologized for the "inaccurate survey and imprecise calculation."
Recently, official Chinese news organizations have run articles or editorials on water pollution, in part spurred by the recent spill. People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published a commentary on Feb. 21 by Yan Houfu, who specializes in environmental law, saying that fines against polluting companies have little impact because the amounts typically range from $8,000 to $80,000. And "the Ministry of Environmental Protection, intentionally or otherwise, has not been strict in enforcing the law," he wrote.
In 2011, inspections in 200 cities across China found that water in 55 percent of the tests was rated "fairly poor to extremely poor," Mr. Yan said. Zhang Lei, an associate professor of environmental studies at Renmin University in Beijing, said that her research showed that there had been about 3,600 spillage accidents related to the chemical industry from 1970 to 2010, of which about 900 were on a large scale.
Amy Qin and Patrick Zuo contributed research from Handan and Beijing.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.