x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

China oil spill is 'more serious than reported'

Greenpeace urges Beijing to redouble clean-up effort and expresses concern over contaminated food and the safety of fishermen.

A member of a clean-up team scoops oil from the sea near near Dalian Port, off Liaoning province, in north-east China.
A member of a clean-up team scoops oil from the sea near near Dalian Port, off Liaoning province, in north-east China.

BEIJING // An environmental group has called on Chinese authorities to redouble efforts to clean up a group of islands polluted by what has been described as China's worst-ever oil spill. Greenpeace China also has voiced concerns over the health of fishermen who worked without protective clothing or equipment to collect oil after the incident in Dalian last month.

Tom Wang, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said the group calculated that at least 60,000 tonnes of oil had been collected in clean-up operations. Greenpeace investigators recently returned after investigating the incident for more than a week. The group believes oil continued to leak into the water until July 22, six days after the spill began. "It's way more serious than the government said at the beginning," Mr Wang told The National.

In contrast, the government says just 1,500 tonnes were spilt, according to figures released shortly after a pipeline at a China National Petroleum Corporation terminal burst at the port of Xingang in Dalian. Officials last week declared the clean-up successful, less than two weeks after the first leaks. Rick Steiner, an American clean-up specialist hired by Greenpeace to assess the spill, has estimated that up to 90,000 tonnes of oil may have entered the sea.

Reports have indicated that some of the oil was released deliberately by workers to prevent the spread of fires in a storage depot. They feared the blaze could have engulfed a tank containing dimethyl-benzene, a substance extracted from crude oil that would have produced toxic vapours had it caught fire. As many as 8,000 workers and 800 fishing boats were involved in cleaning up the spill, which is said to have covered an area of 50 square kilometres in the sea off Liaoning province in north-east China.

Men were seen working without gloves, goggles or respiratory equipment when they collected oil with buckets. Some were even pictured covered with oil and wearing just their underwear. Those taking part received payment for useable oil they collected from the water. Reports indicate that some fishermen suffered vomiting, headaches and skin rashes. Mr Wang said Greenpeace officials saw fishermen pass out from what is thought to be inhalation of fumes from the oil.

"They didn't really have any protective gear," he said. He added that "there hasn't really been any assessment yet" of the environmental impact of the spill. The extent of the damage caused by the oil was, he said, "still a huge question mark". Initially, beaches in the Dalian area, which is a popular region for tourists were closed. But Mr Wang said there was no longer much visible sign of the oil on the mainland after clean-up operations, although some could be found further into the sand.

The group continues to have concerns about the state of several small islands further out to sea that it believes may still be heavily polluted and have yet to be cleaned. "There's still a huge amount the government needs to send people on to clean up, for example the islands. There is no way anybody could really totally clean up any kind of spill," Mr Wang said. "When it comes to the seafood, we've seen local fishermen trying to clean up shells and oysters and try to sell the products to the market. That's pretty scary because it's highly toxic in the food chain."

Amid its many environmental problems, China has suffered a series of large-scale leaks involving the petrochemical industry, including an oil leakage from a pipeline in Shanxi province earlier this year. @Email:dbardsley@thenational.ae