Bohai Sea or Dead Sea?


Guest post by chinadialogue intern Li Cheng

It has been almost three months since the ConocoPhillips oil spill began. How much oil has leaked so far? Is there still hope for the Bohai Sea? On September 14, at a reporters’ salon held by NGO Green Earth Volunteers, Zhao Zhangyuan of the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science offered an analysis.

Zhao has calculated a rough estimate of the quantity of leaked oil: "According to official figures, 870 square kilometres of sea suffered grade-four pollution. Given that the oil is spread by tides, storms and boats, we will take a figure one third of the highest oil density in the grade-four bracket as the basis for our calculation. This is 15 milligrams per litre. One must also consider the large quantity of oil dispersants used during the clean-up operation, giving us total leakage in the region of 50,000 to 70,000 tonnes." 

Zhao pointed out that the Bohai region’s already fragile marine ecology has been further weakened by the spill. "Bohai is a closed marine area of about 70,000 square kilometres, with only a single exit, less than 100 kilometres across. Even once you pass that, you’re not out in the open sea, because of the obstructions of Japan and the Korean peninsular. So, in effect, it is a separate ocean basin. 

“In recent years, Bohai has seen repeated red tides and considerable loss of marine life, and is now almost on the brink of ecological collapse. In addition, with the concentration of population and economic development on its shores, polluted water entering the sea has reached 2.8 billion tonnes each year. It has become a waste sink. So the ConocoPhillips accident is just one more crisis coming after many others.”

Zhao said that the most dangerous and immediate anticipated effect of the oil spill would be on Laizhou Bay, where fish farming is likely suffer a significant fall in output and quality. Moreover, the spilled oil contains various carcinogenic hydrocarbon compounds which can contaminate the food chain through fish and shrimp, ultimately posing a threat to human health. Zhao advised people to avoid seafood from spill-affected areas.

"If development continues, Bohai will very quickly become a dead sea,” said Zhao. “The food chain will inherit a ‘legacy of pollution’, disastrous epidemics could arise at any time; and in a very short time our ecosystem will become unstable and collapse, with unthinkable consequences."

The leak at the Bohai Sea Penglai 19-3 oil well, jointly run by China National Offshore Oil Corporation and US firm ConocoPhillips, started at the beginning of June. On August 25, ConocoPhillips China admitted that leaked oil had been discovered at 16 different locations in the vicinity of the Penglai 19-3 field’s platform C. It has been heavily criticised for its attitude to and handling of the accident. The spilled oil has already destroyed a scallop harvest in Hebei, causing economic losses of approximately 350 million yuan to date. 

Translated by chinadialogue volunteer Samuel Wade.