Oil spill washes up on beaches

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2011, 12:00am


Traces of oil from spills at the mainland's largest offshore oilfield have washed ashore on two beaches along the Bohai Sea some 170 kilometres away, prompting fears of an ecological catastrophe.

It was the first time the mainland's marine authorities have confirmed that small globs of oil that leaked from the Penglai 19-3 oilfield over a month ago have been found on the northeastern coast.

Environmentalists expressed disappointment with the clean-up effort, which appears to have failed to prevent the spills from reaching the coast. They also voiced concerns that the disaster may cause far greater damage to people living along the coast and the marine environment.

Citing the State Oceanic Administration's north sea branch, Xinhua said chemical analysis showed that blobs of congealed oil found at beaches in Hebei and Liaoning originated from the site of spills at the mouth of Bohai Bay.

The authorities have begun cleaning up small tar balls up to four centimetres in diameter scattered along a four-kilometre section of Dongdaihe beach in Liaoning and Qianshuiwan beach in Hebei, both close to the summer resort of Beidaihe .

It is not immediately clear how much damage the spills will inflict on the coastal areas, but analysts said the pollution may deal a devastating blow to local economies heavily reliant on fishing and tourism.

There have been reports about oil contamination from fishermen along the coast of Shandong, some 70 kilometres south of the rigs, jointly owned by China National Offshore Oil Corporation and American operator ConocoPhillips, over the past two weeks, but the State Oceanic Administration had denied it was linked to the spills.

Both oil companies, which kept the public in the dark about the spills for about a month until early July, have sought to play them down.

Despite their claims on July 6 that the spills were 'basically' under control, the administration admitted last week that the leaks had yet to be plugged and ordered a halt to drilling operations at the rigs.

It lashed out at ConocoPhillips, which holds a 49 per cent interest in the rigs, saying the US firm was 'slack and ineffective' in containing the spills. But ConocoPhillips said it had done all it could to stop the spills, including plugging the leaks and dispersing the spills with chemicals and absorbent mats.

Ma Jun, a leading water pollution expert, said: 'Apparently the impact of the spills has initially been underestimated as a much greater area has been affected. With the spills finally reaching the coast, we have good reason to ask if ConocoPhillips has taken adequate measures and why the spills have contaminated such a vast area of sea.'

The administration estimated last week that 4,240 square kilometres of sea, about the size of Qinghai Lake, was affected, with the water quality of the worst-hit area of 840 square kilometres dropping to Grade IV, the worst on the national standard.

Li Yan, of Greenpeace China, said critical questions remained unanswered as the environmental disaster unfolded, such as the true amount of oil that leaked into the sea and the environmental impact of the chemicals used to disperse it.