An oil leak triggered by pipeline explosions Friday in the northeastern port city of Dalian had contaminated at least 50 square kilometers of ocean waters as of last night, and local authorities were still rushing to contain the oil.
An oil pipeline measuring nearly a meter in diameter exploded at 6 pm Friday near Dalian's Xingang Harbor, triggering an adjacent smaller pipeline to explode too. At least five subsequent explosions fueled the fire at the smaller pipeline.
The fire was mostly extinguished by Saturday morning, 15 hours after the initial explosion, but it flared up in some spots Sunday morning. As of late Sunday, the fire wasn't completely out, but it was under control, according to the Liaoning firefighting authority, which mobilized 2,000 firemen in 14 cities of the province.
Dalian maritime workers were still engaged in the cleanup Sunday, and according to the Dalian Maritime Safety Bureau, a dark brown belt of crude oil and other pollutants stretched at least 50 square kilometers across seawaters off Xingang Harbor, with 10 square kilometers of sea seriously polluted and 100 square kilometers affected.
By Sunday afternoon, a 9,000-meter-long, spill-containment boom had been set up by the bureau. About 20 vessels were cleaning the pollution using oil-spill dispersant and oil-absorption felt. A large piece of the felt can absorb 35-40 kilograms of oil.
As for the oil floating atop the water, some people worry that if the wind direction changes, the oil will wash up onto the Dalian beaches, China National Radio reported.
The fishing industry may also be impacted by the incident. A fisherman told the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV that although it's not currently fishing season, he was still concerned about the situation because during the last 10 years, with environmental pollution worsening, the amount of fish he can catch is being reduced, and the oil pollution now may make the situation even worse.
Dalian Zhangzidao Fishery Group and the Dalian Yiqiao Marine Seeds, two Shenzhen-listed fishery companies, said Sunday in statements on their websites, separately, that their business was not yet affected by the oil spill.
Experts are optimistic in dealing with the cleanup work. Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times that the pollution is controllable as oil has stopped leaking into the sea, as a valve was closed Saturday morning and the oil that entered the sea had been fenced off and contained.
"The situation of Dalian cannot be compared with the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, which many people are worried about," Lin noted, adding that the cleaning progress had been affected by weather.
No casualties were reported. No residents live within three kilometers and the nearest community, with about 600 people, is four kilometers away, according to a local government spokesperson.
However, people are also concerned about air pollution caused by the explosion and fire. Dalian's downtown areas were clouded by smog Saturday. The environment authorities said hydrocarbon density was high within a radius of 1.2 kilometers from the fire site.
Wu Guogong, deputy director of the Dalian Environment Protection Bureau, said Sunday that the air quality of Dalian can still meet national standards, according to the 3,000 figures provided by monitoring stations on sea and land after the accident happened.
The burning of crude oil may produce more than 40 kinds of pollutants, which, however, are not considered seriously harmful to people's health, Wu said, adding that the monitoring work was underway.
Tang Liqiu, a citizen in Dalian who lives about five kilometers away from the port, said that he believes the government will make progress in the cleanup efforts, but if the pollution becomes serious, he will leave the city.
Zhao Yang, a student at Dalian Maritime University, told the Global Times, "I hope to know more details like the cause and influence of the explosion, because it is something in my own life."
Who's to blame?
An investigation team has been established to examine the oil pipeline explosions, but the cause of the accident is yet to be determined, Sun Benqiang, deputy chief of the municipal work safety bureau, said Sunday.
The explosions happened after a 300,000-ton Liberian oil tanker discharged its load at the harbor. The tanker left the harbor safely. Both pipelines that exploded were owned by the China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC).
"Whether CNPC or the tanker should be blamed for the accident is yet to be determined," Sun said.
The economic loss is hard to estimat, as the cleanup work hasn't finished. China National Radio reported that an incident management team formed by national officials returned to Beijing on Saturday and left the investigation work to Liaoning officials, which may suggest the direct loss of the accident may not exceed 100 million yuan.
According to the Regulations on the Reporting, Investigation and Disposition of Work Safety Accidents released in 2007, the investigation into accidents with a direct economic loss of more than 100 million yuan should be operated by the State Council or authorized departments.
Dalian Xingang Harbor is the largest deep-water oil port in China, with a capacity of 15 million tons per year. There are 20 oil storage tanks in the underbond area of the Dalian Petrochina International Warehousing & Transportation Co, owned by the CNPC, with the total amount of oil reaching 1.85 million cubic meters.