In China, an oil spill and a low-tech cleanup

By Keith B. Richburg
Friday, July 23, 2010; A08

BEIJING -- Hundreds of firefighters and civilian volunteers used bare hands, chopsticks and plastic garbage bags Thursday to wage a low-tech battle against a giant oil slick spreading off China's northeastern coast.

The slick, near the oil port of Dalian, in Liaoning province, was caused when two pipelines exploded last Friday as crude was being unloaded from a Libyan tanker. Government officials said the accident released about 1,500 tons -- or 400,000 gallons -- of oil into the Yellow Sea, where the slick now covers up to 170 square miles, according to news reports, making it China's largest recorded spill.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is estimated in the tens of millions of gallons.

"I used small wood planks to scoop up the oil and put it into big plastic garbage bags," said Liu Jia, a worker at the Dalian beach resort. "Some of my colleagues used chopsticks. . . . It works, because the oil is quite sticky. Sometimes, we just used our hands to pick up the sand that is covered with oil."

Liu described the methods being used as "quite primitive, quite time-consuming."

China National Petroleum Corp. said Thursday that no more oil was leaking from the damaged pipelines, but the port at Dalian remained closed as the black oil continued to wash up onshore. Fishing has been banned in the vicinity at least through August, and several nearby beaches were also declared off-limits at the height of the summer tourist season.

"It should be the best season for the beach right now," said Bao Wulan, head of public relations for the Dalian Golden Beach Tourism Group. She said that 70,000 to 80,000 visitors would normally be in the area this time of year -- "but now, no tourists."

She added: "I don't know how our business can go back to normal. Our beach is almost all polluted."

The environmental group Greenpeace China said it has found oil in bays six miles from Dalian, and Jinshitan Golden Beach, more than 20 miles away, was also reportedly affected. Workers were laying straw mats at Jinshitan on Thursday in a bid to suck up the crude.

Greenpeace said 10,000 shellfish farms have been contaminated.

The battle against the spreading oil slick has claimed the life of one worker, a firefighter who drowned Tuesday.

Although hundreds of civilian volunteers have been mobilized to help with the cleanup, the lack of equipment has hindered the ad hoc effort.

"We're using rubber gloves, spades, chopsticks and homemade rakes," said Bao, the tourism group official. She said that the oil began arriving on the beach around midnight Monday and that almost all the company's workers were on the beach Tuesday to help clean up.

Bao said her company has since moved bulldozers and earth-moving machines from nearby construction sites to the beach, and the government said it has dispatched 40 oil-skimming vehicles and tons of oil-dispersing bacteria to the site.

Environmental groups warned that the damage could last years.

"The oil is impossible to clean up completely," said Zhong Yu, senior action coordinator of Greenpeace China. "The pollution will affect the ecological system on the shore and the creatures in the ocean and will enter the air and soil. It will take a long time to eliminate the effects."

She added: "Because we don't know how much oil spilled into the sea, it's hard to evaluate the impact on the environment now."

Zhong said that local fishermen have joined the cleanup effort but that most lack basic protective equipment.

"They just wear work overalls," she said. "They have no masks or other protective equipment to protect their skin and lungs. It's quite dangerous for them."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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