On the 16th of July, China experienced its first major oil-spill. The Chinese incident was also caused by an explosion (this time during the transfer of oil from a tanker to a reserve owned by the China National Petroleum Corp), but is nothing like the size of the BP spillage in the Gulf of Mexico. The amount of public information released in any level of detail has so far been scant, but in this month's Chemistry World, the British Royal Society of Chemistry has published an article which provides some update of the state of play in the aftermath of the event.
Around 1,500 tonnes of crude-oil ended-up in the Dalian Bay, which is a popular resort for tourism and conferences, located in the far east of China. The initial clean-up was pretty much over in two weeks, but residual problems in safety management are highlighted. As usual, there are various estimates of the size of the resulting oil-slick, of between 150 - 450 square kilometers of ocean covered, but the main concern is that the oil might contain toxic organic contaminants that could invade the food-chain, threatening the health of humans, animals and that of the wider environment for decades to come.
It is argued that a lack of technical expertise and equipment in China made the clean-up process more complicated and protracted than it need have been. Many thousands of workers were garnered in Dalian and simply sent-out in fishing-boats to collect the oil in buckets, which was then poured into storage-tanks. Since they had little or no protective equipment or were untrained in how to use what they did have, the long-term effects of their exposure to a mixture of chemical substances remains to be seen. It appears that the Dalian municipal government had only enough capacity to cope with 200 tonnes of oil, and less than the 1,500 actually spilt.
While this is nothing compared to the 750,000 tonnes of oil that poured into the gulf of Mexico, for which BP are taking part of the blame along with their subcontractors, the point is made that China needs to advance its capability to provide long-term solutions to environmental problems of this kind. There is currently a great lack of environmental and geochemical research into oil-spills in China. The Dalian oil-spill is likely to be a microcosm of greater future catastrophes for a highly populous country that is expected to expand its oil-based personal transportation by a factor of ten to 200 million by 2020.
"China tackles its first major oil spill," Chemistry World, September 2010, p10.