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After the spill

In the days following the Dalian pipeline explosion, local fishermen reaped the rewards of a government-funded clean-up campaign – until the oil dispersed and reality set in. Xu Zhuojun reports.

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Thousands of black buckets glistened by the shore. The moist air carried a pungent whiff of oil as well as the sharp tang of ozone. Every few minutes, two or three figures, black from head to toe, clambered out of an equally black fishing boat, staggering under the weight of buckets laden with crude oil.

This was the scene on July 26 at Jinshi Beach, 35 kilometres from Xingang Port in Dalian Development Area, north-east China, where the country’s worst ever oil leak happened in July. A scattering of simple wooden fishing boats floated at the harbour mouth, and oil-covered water bottles, boots and cleaning rags were strewn everywhere. 

“It didn’t used to be like this,” said Shao Deshan, head of Hezui village. Jinshi Beach, surrounded on three sides by the sea and backed by mountains, is Dalian’s best-known resort and boasts one of China’s 15 “healthy bathing beaches”. In high season, tens of thousands of tourists visit each day.

On July 16, a pipeline explosion sent crude oil gushing into the sea. An official inspection on July 19 found that 430 square kilometres of ocean had been affected. The accident changed the look of Jinshi Beach – and the livelihoods of its residents.

Most people here make a living from the sea. “More than 70% of the 300 local households work in aquaculture,” said Shao. Although July is not fishing season in Dalian, it is when the harvest is collected from floating cages and coastal shallows.

But, this year, the exposure to oil has killed off the shellfish and snails that many of them farm. “Wherever the oil goes, they die,” said 70-year old shellfish farmer Zhang Baojun. “And even if they don’t, you can’t eat them because of the smell. We never thought the explosion would affect us here.” 

From July 18, spots of oil started appearing near Jinshi Beach. At first, the villagers were most worried about the effect on their produce. But the money to be made from collecting oil soon became their main concern. It wasn’t just the fishermen and snail farmers – university students, taxi drivers and restaurant owners were all out collecting oil.

Zhang Chengqiang, a second-year engineering student at Shenyang Agricultural University, was looking for summer work and ended up here for a bit of “life experience”. When I met him, at about 3pm on July 27, he had just returned to the harbour, and was wet and sticky with oil.

The 21-year-old had no protective gear at all, and his T-shirt was soaked in oil – you couldn’t tell what colour it had originally been. His rainproof trousers were too big and held up with a coarse rope. Everything below his neck was covered in oil, which glistened in the sun.

A local fish farmer, Li Hui, said he had been getting up at four or five in the morning to take his workers out to collect oil. Most of the local villagers had been doing the same in their small wooden boats. They would lie at the edges of their vessels, reaching out to grab clumps of oil and transfer them into buckets placed nearby. The more “professional” among them used baskets usually reserved for scooping fish out of fish pens. “They’re great for getting the oil – all the water falls out but the sticky clumps of oil stay,” Li explained.

For the first few days, there was a thick layer of oil all over the sea, and Li’s boat didn’t even need to move – they could get a full load just staying still. Later, he and his workmates had to go looking for oil. On July 26, one of the locals took me out on his boat to where the fish pens were – it was hard to find any clumps of crude oil, but there was still a film of light oil everywhere.

Most of the villagers knew that the oil was toxic and bad for their health, but they still rushed to collect it. These were no environmental volunteers. For most of them this was business and, for a while, they were making ten times their normal income.

Li Hui is one of the area’s biggest fish farmers, and was able to send out 10 boats. With one boat collecting up to 100 buckets of oil, and each bucket bought by the government for 300 yuan (US$45), his fleet could make up to 300,000 yuan (US$45,000) a day. “Subtract wages and the cost of the buckets and I was making about 150,000 yuan (US$22,000) a day,” he said.

Most of the village households near Jinshi Beach have fishing boats – and even a single boat could make 10,000 to 20,000 yuan (US$1,500 to US$3,000) a day. Those without their own boats worked for those with them, and could earn about 2,000 yuan (US$297) for a day’s work.

They were too busy collecting oil to worry about what would happen next, or even to check their own losses. “We didn’t have the time to fuss – we had to get out collecting oil,” said one local’s wife. “It was horrible work, but the money was good.”

But from July 29, it became harder to find the clusters of crude oil that the government would pay for, and many stopped looking for it. “Now what?” they began to ask.

Five years ago, Zhang Baojun pulled together 1.5 million yuan (US$223,000) from savings and loans from friends and family. He then got together with seven other households and used the money to buy the rights to over 1,000 mu (around 0.7 square kilometres) of ocean for aquaculture. Three years ago, he bought 800,000 yuan (US$119,000) worth of sea snails, which should now be ready for harvesting. If it wasn’t for the disaster, he said he would now be collecting 75,000 to 80,000 kilograms of snails. And each kilogram fetches 16 yuan (US$2.37) during summer.

Before the oil arrived, Zhang would go to the beach at low tide and collect some of the bigger snails. A buyer would come for them and take them to the seafood market in Dalian. “I didn’t manage to sell any at all the week after the leak,” he said. “None at all. Lots of them died, and nobody wanted the live ones.”

Most on his mind, however, was the long-term impact: “There is going to be no harvest for at least two or three years.” Zhang’s business partner, Ge Yunmei, added: “I saw online that we’ll still be suffering the effects in 10 years time.”

Like the others, all Zhang can do is wait and ask village head Shao if any compensation has arrived yet. Li Hui has worked the sea for years and has often brought cases to the maritime court – so he knows to keep evidence. “I’ve got video from July 19, 20 and 21,” he said. “And I’ve spoken to lawyers in Beijing, Tianjin and Dalian.”

But most of the villagers don’t have Li’s experience. Zhang Baojun lies in bed smoking and sighing until the afternoon, when he follows the low tide out onto the beach and stares out at the oily sea in silence.

This isn’t the first time Jinshi Beach has suffered after an oil leak. On April 3, 2005 Portuguese tanker the Arteaga ran aground near the Dalian port, spilling hundreds of tonnes of oil, which spread to Dagu Island and Jinshi Beach. The guilty party in that case was a foreign tanker, not a Chinese company. According to the local media, the local government quickly dispatched legal consultants to help local businesses and individuals protect their interests through legal channels. Just five days later – on April 8 – the case against the Arteaga was accepted by Dalian maritime court.

Ultimately, and although a decision is still awaited in an environmental compensation lawsuit brought by the Dalian Oceanic and Fishery Administration, the case – involving 117 people and damages claims of 1.16 billion yuan (US$172 million) – was resolved through mediation, with the majority of those involved satisfied with the result.

And as the locals recall, the spill in 2005 had much less impact than this one.

As of the time of writing, more than half a month after the explosion, the compensation process still had not started. And China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), one of the responsible parties, had not yet appeared at the Dalian government press conferences.

“Now I’m just waiting for the compensation, to see if it’s reasonable or not. If not I’ll sue,” Zhang Baojun told me. Who would he sue? Like many others, he wasn’t sure. The locals were not even clear what the difference was between the responsible party and the government. But they were sure of one thing: “The government will pay reasonable compensation.”
(Editor’s note: as of 16 September, the Dalian fishing communities petitioning the government for compensation had still seen no progress towards assessment and payment of damages, according to Caixin.)

 

Xu Zhuojun is a reporter at Southern Metropolis Weekly.

This article first appeared in Southern Metropolis Weekly and has been edited by chinadialogue.

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

法律能帮到这些渔民吗

毫无疑问,中石油以及相关责任方需要赔偿渔民的损失,以及海洋生态的损失。但是,法律真能帮到这些渔民吗?

Will the law help fishermen?

There's no question that the China National Petroleum corporation and other responsible parties need to compensate fishermen for their loss, and for the damage they have caused to the ocean ecosystem. However, will laws really be any help to these fishermen?

Default thumb avatar Reply arrow
gaidee

能,当然能

不是每桶300元嘛,真不少。你看,文中不是说到了一些快乐的人儿的故事了嘛!

Of course it will!

Aren't they paying 300 RMB a bucket? That's quite a lot. Look at the article- didn't it mention some happy people's stories?

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

关于大连漏油的遐想

我很喜欢这篇文章,主要是喜欢文章西化的表达手法。另外,我注意到这么一句话,"村民忙活着捞油,大多还没来得及想以后的事情,也没顾得上检查自己的损失"。说得真好啊。我们把这句话的主语换一下,变成这样“中国人忙活着赚钱,大多还没来得及想以后的事情,也没顾得上检查自己的损失”我看也不错吧。

大连漏油不过是我们环保灾难繁星中比较闪亮的那一颗,看不见的、不知道的想必很多。我觉得本文标题有些模棱两可的味道,很暧昧。“短暂致富”有什么不好?很多人做梦都在幻想能够短暂致富,只要能致富,有了钱,不捕鱼,咱们有钱了可以干其它事情嘛。我们有了原始积累,可以更关注环保嘛,你看美国不也是一样嘛,采油嘛,漏是不可避免的,不漏才怪呢。你看,油一漏,不是可以扩大就业嘛,不是提高人民的收入嘛,说不定很多人恨不得油漏到他的鱼塘哪儿呢。300块钱一吨,和美国人开的价比起来估计差得不少,那不要紧,美国是美国,中国是中国,我们还是发展中国家,有我们的特色,有我们的难处。如果英国石油公司在我们的海域漏了,那该多么好啊,几百亿美元的收入,还不用干啥活,简直就是天上掉下来的馅饼,谁不喜欢啊。环保值几个钱?

我觉得这篇文章,以及这个事件是我们国家环保事业一个很好的缩影。

Some thoughts on the Dalian oil spill

I like this article a lot for its westernised presentation. Additionally, one sentence in it draws my attention: 'They (villagers) were too busy collecting oil to worry about what would happen next, or even to check their own losses.' Well said. We could change the subject into 'Chinese people' in general, that is ' Chinese people are too busy with making money to worry about what would happen next, or even to check their own losses,' which depicts the current Chinese society.

The oil spill in Dalian is only one of several environmental disasters, many of which are invisible and unknown to the public. I think the Chinese title of the article is vague. What's wrong with 'becoming rich in a short time'? Isn't it what many people dream of? As long as we are rich, we can do many other things, who even cares to fish? With enough money, we can pay more attention to environmental protection. Just look at the US. It is unavoidable to spill some oil in oil extraction. When it does happen, aren't more jobs created and doesn't the income of the villagers increase? Many people probably wish their fishing areas were polluted by oil. The villagers receive 300 yuan for one bucket of oil they collect. The figure would be much higher if it happened in the US. However, it doesn't matter because the two countries are different in that China is a developing country with its own characteristics and difficulties. How nice it would be if BP spill oil happened in our sea! It would bring in tens of billions of dollars without doing anything! Who would not feel happy for such a huge amount of pennies from heaven? On the other hand, how much money does environmental protection make?

In my opinion, this article and the whole incident is an epitome of China's environmental protection deadlock.

(this comment is translated by Dong Hebing)