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.
Homepage image from Greenpeace China