The pipeline explosion at a PetroChina oil terminal outside Dalian two weeks ago that sent crude oil gushing in to the Yellow Sea is reckoned to be China’s worst known oil spill. The worst by quite how much is now the question.
Official figures put the size of the spill at 1,500 tons of oil, which would be 11,000 barrels or half a million gallons. Rick Steiner, an American marine conservation specialist consulting for Greenpeace and who has seen the spill, told the BBC that the spill was lager than that caused by the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that hit a reef off Alaska in 1989 spilling an estimated 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude into Prince William Sound. At the time it was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters and is still regarded as one of the worst man-made environmental disasters.
China’s oil companies and officials were already reviewing their contingency plans in the light of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, though reports of the clean-up operation in the Yellow Sea suggest it mainly involves throwing thousands of people at scooping up the oil from boats and off the beaches, some with their bare hands, and spraying chemical dispersants on the water.
Environmentally damaging industrial accidents are commonplace in China. Just earlier this week some 7,000 barrels of toxic chemicals were swept into the Songhua River in Jilin, a source of drinking water for several million people. But such accidents haven’t yet triggered the political backlash that seems inevitable. John Foley of Reuters Breakingviews suggested that was because China “has not yet reached its ‘Minamata moment'”, a reference to the death of nearly 3,000 residents of a Japanese town caused by the dumping in the early 1970s of mercury into Minamata Bay. The case became the poster child for the unacceptable environmental costs of rapid industrialization, and made controlling pollution a national political priority in Japan.
In 2007, the World Bank estimated that pollution was responsible for the deaths of 460,000 Chinese a year. Authorities have been trying to curb the worst excess of industrial pollution, but it is a Sisyphean task at this stage of China’s economic development. The Party is well aware of the potential challenge to its power that could come from the emergence of single-issue pressure groups such as environmentalists campaigning for water fit to drink and air fit to breathe. Whether the Dalian oil spill turns out to be big enough to create China’s Minamata moment or not, at some point it will arrive.