While BP deals with the aftermath of the biggest accidental oil spill in history, China has been struggling with its first large-scale oil spill


Ling Wang and Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

While BP deals with the aftermath of the biggest accidental oil spill in history, slicks were left licking the shores of Dalian in northeast China following the country’s first large-scale oil spill last month.

Although the clean-up operation after the spill was more or less complete within two weeks, it has highlighted wider problems in safety management and environmental impact assessment in the sector.

Environmental impacts

The initial spill took place after an explosion during the transfer of oil from an oil tanker to reserves of the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) on 16 July. 

A total of 1500 tonnes of crude oil spilled into Dalian Bay, a popular tourist resort. In the following days, the official environmental agency said the spill had spread across 150 square kilometres of ocean, while some activists claim the polluted area could be up to 450 square kilometres.

Map showing Dalian

Dalian in northeast China was a popular tourist spot

According to Peng Xianzhi, a scientist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ (CAS) Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, the oil could contain many polluting compounds, including persistent organic pollutants (POPs) which can threaten human, animal and environmental health for a long time. 

Studies also indicate that leaked oil could contaminate soil and lead to pollution of the food chain. While killing some animals and plants, the oil could cause some ocean bacteria to bloom, reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen in sea and causing the death of other species. 

The spilled oil has been observed to penetrate 30 centimetres below the beach surface.  

Another real threat is the potential health risk to workers cleaning up the spill. Many of them are newly employed migrant workers who do not have any protection equipment when salvaging or clearing the spilled oil.

’A big problem is that there are many unstable compounds in the oil and we do not know when and how they will degrade,’ Peng told Chemistry World.

She adds that due to the lack of research in China on the environmental impacts of such accidents, it is difficult to assess the exact harm of this large-scale oil spill.

War against the spill

Although the scale of Dalian spill is far smaller than BP’s in the Gulf of Mexico, poor technical expertise and lack of equipment have made the clean up process lengthy and problematic.

Thousands of workers gathered in Dalian shortly after the spill to clean up the oil using fishing boats and buckets, with the collected oil stored in tanks. Most of the workers did not have protection equipment and even when they did, they did not know how to use it. 

Man cleaning up oil with a bucket

Workers cleaning up the spill did not have sufficient protective equipment

© Associated Press

According to a scientist who wanted to remain anonymous, neither Dalian officials nor CNPC were equipped to deal with the accident. ’Dalian municipal government only has capacity to deal with 200 tonnes of spilled oil,’ he said. The government should have had appropriate boats and machines, tanks to store collected oil, and facilities to process the collected oil. 

It is reported that the Dalian government could spend up to Yuan1 billion (US$148 million) to clean up the spill, let alone any harm caused to Dalian’s tourism and environment.  

A team of 18 scientists from CAS Qingdao Institute of Oceanology has been dispatched to the region to monitor the spread of spilled oil. So far, the team has not identified any obvious spread of oil between 20 and 40 nautical miles from the original spill.  

Dalian municipal government has announced that it will change all beach sand polluted by the oil spill. But some scientists say while such actions may quickly restore the appearance of the beach, it may not be good for the local eco-system.    

Systemic problem 

Many officials and scientists refused to answer media questions on the exact impact of the oil spill on the environment. The situation has highlighted an extreme lack of environmental and geochemical studies on oil spills in China. 

’As scientists, we do not have the funding or the opportunity to conduct in-depth research into these accidents,’ Peng says. She explains that it is difficult for scientists at CAS institutes or universities to obtain samples and solid funding for oil spill research.  

’The natural science foundation and funding at CAS is supposed to solve key basic scientific issues but not practical problems,’ Peng says. ’On the other hand, researchers at environmental and oceanology departments are only concerned about solving immediate problems rather than long-term observation and scientific assessment.’ 

’The gap must be filled if we scientists want to contribute long-term solutions to oil spills and other emerging environmental problems,’ Peng says.