China struggles to recover from 'worst ever' oil spill

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Media captionChris Hogg has been to see the heart of the clean-up operation

China is struggling to clean up what has being described as the country's worst oil spill, a fortnight after a fire at an oil depot caused crude to leak into the sea for several days.

An army of volunteers and fishermen has been mobilised to help clean up the pollution from the area around the port of Dalian, one of China's most important strategic oil reserves.

But conditions are grim for those involved.

The scene at a small harbour where they are collecting the oil is like something out of the 19th Century.

Fishermen covered in oil, some of them working just in their underwear, scrape up the toxic sludge that spilled out of the jars they have brought back from the open sea.

No one is wearing protective goggles, facemasks or even gloves to protect them from the hazardous chemicals in the oil.

It takes them four or five hours to sail back from where they collect the oil on the open sea.

They have to wait until nightfall, when the temperature drops, and the oil is at its most viscous, to scoop it out.


"Cleaning the oil from the sea is tough, and it's dangerous," says Qu Benhong, a fisherman who has taking a rest in the shade under a bridge.

His overalls are covered in the shiny crude. Next to him his friend's bare legs are black, like they have been dipped in treacle.

Image caption The workers have no protective clothing to guard against the chemicals in the oil

"We work day and night, around the clock, we can't sleep," Mr Qu says. "Out there the waves are huge, it's quite frightening."

And yet every few minutes a new boat, laden with the jars of oil, arrives.

This is a massive operation, and although officials admit it is "arduous", the rows of hundreds of jars sitting on the quayside - each about half metre high, all filled to the brim - suggest a great deal of oil is being taken from the sea.

Hundreds of thousands of gallons were spilled when two massive pipelines exploded at the depot.

The scars of the fire can still be seen - some of the massive storage silos are covered in black soot, two weeks after the devastating explosions there.

China says the oil slick is under control and has not reached international waters. That is thanks in no small part to the efforts of the fishermen.

"I've been at sea for five days," another man says as he unloads his jars onto the back of a flat-bed truck.

He is hoarse with exhaustion: "I didn't sleep last night at all."

Some here complain of headaches, vomiting and rashes on the skin.

It is a horrible job, dirty, difficult and dangerous, but everyone here says they have no choice; their environment, their livelihoods are at risk, the have to do it.

Further down the coast on a beach that housed a shellfish farm before the spill contaminated it, Chai Chun Mei is squeezing oil from a rope into a bucket. She is using her bare hands.

She needs to get the beach clean, though, if her family is to have a chance of getting the farm up and running again.


Further along the beach, environmental activists from the pressure group Greenpeace have brought an American expert to see the damage for himself.

Zhong Yu from Greenpeace points out that it is more than a week since the government said the oil stretched across 430sq km.

"Since then there have been no updates," she says. "That makes it hard for the people to work out where the oil will spread to next."

The expert she has brought with her, Prof Rick Steiner, who describes himself as an independent marine conservation consultant, listens as she and her colleagues try to explain to the locals the dangers of constant exposure to the oil.

He believes this could turn out to be the worst oil spill this country has suffered.

"This is certainly the largest oil spill in China's history, and I do find it ironic that US and China have both had their largest oil spills at the same time. These hidden costs of oil are there whether we see them or not," he says.

The government pays cash for oil ready for recycling. But the fishermen may find getting proper compensation will be harder.

The state owns the firm that spilled the crude so who will put pressure on them, people here are asking.

"The pollution will harm our business for a long time," a fisherman grumbles as he loads up jars of oil collected from the beach onto his boat to be taken to the collection point for recycling.

"But I can't do anything about it."

His family struggles on - wading through the toxic sludge to push the boat off the beach - because they feel have no choice.

They have to try to make a living while they can for once the clean up is finished, what then?