Officials put spill clean-up heroes at risk

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 July, 2010, 12:00am

Greenpeace criticised the city government of Dalian, Liaoning , yesterday for mobilising tens of thousands of fishermen to clean up the massive oil spill 12 days ago without regard to the potential health hazards they faced.

Video footage and photos taken by the group showed that almost all the civilian participants, dubbed by state media as 'volunteers', were working with no protection at all. Women hauled swollen cloths from the sea with their bare hands, men chewed bread buttered in oil and children played on a filthy beach.

Nobody was wearing a mask.

Zhong Yu, Greenpeace's senior action co-ordinator and leader of an investigation, said that after the incident a cancer-causing chemical known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons was detected in the sea air. Other chemicals such as benzene could enter the body through the skin and digestive system, causing headache, nausea and vomiting, she said.

'The civilians living by the shore have every reason to stay home and leave the mess to the government and oil companies, which were responsible for this incident, but they didn't. They ventured out in tens of thousands and fought the disaster with high spirits,' Zhong said.

'They have been working tirelessly for more than a week without receiving any apology or compensation from the oil companies. They were not given, or even advised to wear, carbonic masks from the government, which are cheap and available anywhere.

'It's just pathetic.'

According to the latest figure released by Dalian government, more than 45,000 people have been involved in the campaign, of whom only 8,000 were professionals. For most participants, the only tools available were plastic and iron barrels, garbage bags, shovels and fishing gear.

By Sunday, the government announced that most of the floating oil had been removed as a testament to the success of the mass mobilisation campaign.

Professor Xia Dongxing , environmental researcher for the First Institute of Oceanography under the State Oceanic Administration, said direct contact with crude oil would cause some health issues but that their severity fell far short of the Greenpeace assertions.

'There is no scientific evidence showing that a dip in the oil will cause cancer. If there really is a risk, it will not be greater than smoking a few packs of cigarettes,' Xia said.

But he admitted that when he saw half-naked civilians scooping oil out of the sea, he knew the government was lacking in its response to the spill.

Oil storage tanks, however robustly built, can always leak or explode. A single lightning bolt could cause havoc. 'But the mainland oil companies, as well as the government, seemed utterly unprepared for it,' Xia said.

'In a public emergency response plan, the mass mobilisation of civilians comes as the last resort. The Dalian government acted as if it didn't have [a plan].'

Volunteer force

The number of people involved in the Dalian clean-up campaign was 45,000, but the professionals among them numbered only: 8,000