BEIJING – China’s worst known oil spill is dozens of times larger than the government has reported – bigger than the famous Exxon Valdez spill – and some of the oil was dumped deliberately to avoid further disaster, an American expert said Friday.
China’s government has said 461,790 gallons of oil spilled after a pipeline exploded two weeks ago near the northeastern city of Dalian, sending 100-foot-high flames raging for hours near one of the country’s key strategic oil reserves. Such public estimates stopped within a few days of the spill.
But Rick Steiner, a former University of Alaska marine conservation specialist, estimated 18.5 million to 27.7 million gallons of oil actually spilled into the Yellow Sea.
“It’s enormous. That’s at least as large as the official estimate of the Exxon Valdez disaster” in Alaska, he told the Associated Press. The size of the offshore area affected by the spill is likely more than 400 square miles, he added.
The estimates, though rough, could complicate China’s efforts to move on from its latest environmental disaster: Dalian’s mayor already declared a “decisive victory” in the oil spill cleanup, state media reported this week.
The spill has caused at least one death when a cleanup worker drowned in the sticky crude, and thousands of Dalian residents have used everything from their bare hands to chopsticks to pick the goo from the sea.
Steiner, who worked on the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, announced the China estimates after touring the oil spill area as a consultant for the environmental group Greenpeace China.
The government has said the pipeline exploded July 16 after workers continued to inject an agent to strip sulfur from oil after a tanker had finished unloading its cargo.
According to Steiner, firefighters at the scene later told Greenpeace China that workers had let oil escape from other tanks to reduce the risk that another nearby tank containing the chemical dimethylbenzene would explode as well.
The oil terminal is owned by China National Petroleum Corp.
Steiner praised the makeshift cleanup efforts: “Very low-tech. The thing is that it worked.”
But he said the thousands of cleanup workers face possible health concerns, receiving no protective gear and being coated in crude.
In addition, this year’s shellfish harvest has been wiped out, causing tens of millions of dollars of economic losses, he said. And many miles of beaches remain heavily oiled.