Fish farmers do dirty work in oil clean-up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 July, 2010, 12:00am

The men slumbering in the shade at noon yesterday could have been mistaken for movie extras waiting for the next shoot, but the black slime covering their fatigued bodies was not make-up but crude oil.

Fish farmers, they've been battling an oil slick in a small bay since Sunday following a pipeline explosion at the port of Xingang in Dalian on Friday.

About 1,500 tonnes of crude oil leaked into the sea, polluting a 430 square kilometre area.

Authorities mobilised thousands of civilians to help with the clean-up, along with dozens of special oil-skimming ships.

Li Zhanshan, wearing only underpants and a pair of oil-stained socks, said they were fish farmers from the Dalian Development Zone who had been recruited by China Marine Monitoring to help clean the bay, where a slick up to 5cm thick covered the shore and water.

Li, who is in his late 30s, said the group had worked around the clock, taking turns to go down to the bay to scoop oil into barrels, which were lifted away by crane.

He said the harsh work and exposure to the oil had begun to take their toll. Li's 26-year-old nephew has an infected right thigh as a result of coming into contact with crude oil and with the diesel and laundry detergent they have used to wash their bodies.

The nephew said they were so dirty that they were not allowed to use public bath houses. 'Now we don't bother to wash up any more because we just come back to get dirty again,' he said. He has had only one wash at home in five days.

The environmental group Greenpeace has warned that by-products from decomposing oil are carcinogenic, but only two fish farmers were wearing rubber waders yesterday. The rest wore as little as possible to avoid getting their clothes soaked with oil. Li said they preferred not to wear rubber protective gear because it was unbearably hot in such humid weather.

He said that for the past five days the group had had nothing but instant noodles and bottled water that they had bought themselves and they had yet to be paid for their efforts.

'But we can't complain because everyone seems to be preoccupied at a moment of national disaster,' Li said. 'On top of that we have a special feeling for this place.'

He said that before the area was earmarked for one of six national oil reserve storage facilities in 2002, they had lived in a nice neighbourhood, with a bayside promenade where the crude oil storage tanks now stand.

Li said they were collecting about 200 barrels of crude oil a day and hoped to finish cleaning up the floating slick in two or three more days.

They would have to leave the slick covering the shoreline to experts, and that clean-up could take weeks or months. 'We can do only so much, but I hope the oil will be gradually cleaned up in the same way we wash our bodies,' he said. 'It's difficult, but you've got to do it.'

China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's biggest oil company and owner of the pipelines that exploded, said on its website yesterday that at least 400 tonnes of spilt oil had been cleaned up so far.