07/21/2010, 00.00
CHINA

Dalian oil slick to reach international waters

More than 500 fishing boats are requisitioned to clean up 183 km2 of oil-covered sea after explosions rip through port. Many fear the disaster is greater than initially thought. Environmental protection is poorly enforced.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – An oil slick covering more than 183 km2 (pictured) of sea in northern China could soon reach international waters. The spill occurred on 16 July after two pipelines exploded and an oil storage tank was destroyed near Dalian's Xingang Harbour. Many analysts wonder why nothing was done in anticipation of a predictable disaster.

Dalian authorities requisitioned more than 500 fishing boats to clean up the sea into which more than 1,500 tonnes of crude oil had leaked. They also said that about a third of the oil had already been scooped up.

Dalian Deputy Mayor, Dai Yulin, said that the cleanup should last four to five days, as the oil breaks down or is mopped up. However, officials with the State Oceanic Administration said that it might take twice as long.

State media have praised the cleanup effort, noting how the closure of the port of Dalian, China’s second oil terminal did not affect deliveries of oil or soybeans. Ships delivering cargoes to Dalian are being diverted to the nearby ports of Jinzhou and Bayuquan.

However, environmentalists like Greenpeace China wonder whether the disaster is not being underestimated. It shot several photographs at the scene, showing oil-slicked rocky beaches, even though the authorities claimed that the wind had driven the slick out to sea.

Greenpeace China spokeswoman Yang Ailun criticised the government for saying that the accident would not have consequences for the environment. Indeed, "It's too early to tell. Oil is still floating around,” she said.

So far, the government has not come up with any explanation for the incident, but experts suggest that the oil was not safe and at risk for explosions because of leaks, poor ventilation as well as the high-sulphur content of crude oil from Saudi Arabia.

Safety issues appear even more relevant now after the International Energy Agency reported that China overtook the United States as the world’s biggest energy user last year, consuming 2,252 million metric tonnes of oil equivalent in 2009 in the form of crude oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources. Chinese officials have disputed the figures.

Experts note that environmental protection is inadequate because big companies can bypass regulation by paying off inspectors.

A clear example is the fate of the Ting River, Shanghang County (Fujian), which recently suffered a major pollution incident. 

A sludge pond built by the Zijin Mining Group, a leading copper and gold producer, experienced a major leak blamed on an illegally built passage into the river. Zijin initially said it was the result of heavy rains, which led to release of 9,100 cubic metres of wastewater on 3 July, killing off 1,900 tonnes of fish. Now there are concerns that the leak polluting the Ting River might spread to adjoining Guangdong province.

The authorities arrested three company officials, for not reporting the leak right away, among other things. Three government officials have also been indicted and the county chief was fired.

Public opinion is concerned because the company had already been told to deal with untreated wastewater but had done nothing whilst monitoring agencies were asleep at the switch.

Now state media are not only blaming government officials for dereliction of duty, but are also highlighting the close ties that existed between the company and local government, with officials holding Zijin shares and many working for the company after leaving public service.

Moreover, in 2009 as much as 60 per cent of local government revenues came from the company.

As it turns out, the monitoring committee, which includes top local Communist Party officials, failed to do anything to keep an eye on the company.

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