Dalian Oil Spill: Preliminary Findings and Recommendations

Press release - 2010-08-02
An expert on oil spills and their effect on marine environments, Dr. Richard Steiner (University of Alaska) shares his findings and recommendations after an investigative trip to Dalian on Greenpeace's invitation.

Oil spill clean up continues in the Dalian region

Dalian, China - An expert on oil spills and their effect on marine environments, Dr. Richard Steiner (University of Alaska) shares his findings and recommendations after an investigative trip to Dalian on Greenpeace's invitation.

Preliminary Findings

1.      Spill Size

Although the government's official estimates of the spill size was just 1,500 tons (10,000 barrels, or 420,000 gallons), we estimate that the spill is far larger.  Having little data from the government upon which to base an estimate, we were left to make several reasonable assumptions to derive a spill size estimate.

Our estimate is derived from reported oil recovery rates together with probable source size. For probable source size, the oil storage tank at the PetroChina terminal that exploded was a 100,000 cubic meter tank (holding about 90,000 tons), and it reportedly had just been filled from the off-loading tanker Universal Diamond alongside the dock at the Dalian Xingang oil terminal on July 16.  This tank collapsed in the explosion, losing all of its contents.

Some of the oil burned for about 15 hours, and the remainder flowed into near-shore waters.  Additionally, there were failures in some of the 5 other nearby oil tanks (also with capacities of 100,000 cubic meters), and we observed some evidence of fire damage to their exteriors.  Oil from these other tanks was released intentionally into the water in order to avoid expansion of the fire, in particular to protect a nearby tank containing the dangerous chemical dimethylbenzene.  Also it was reported to Greenpeace that some oil flowed out of the other tanks due to valve failures.

Thus, a contributing factor in the large spill size was a flaw in the design of the tank farm at the PetroChina terminal. The tanks were too close together, the dimethylbenzene tank was too close to the crude oil tanks, and there was not enough room between tanks to easily move fire-fighting equipment.  The Chinese government announced on July 22, six days after the accident, that the leaking of the oil tanks has been stopped.  Not knowing the percentage burned vs. unburned, or the amount released from the other tanks over 6 days, we assumed that these two figures cancel each other out, for sake of the spill size estimate.

Additionally, reported oil recovery rates indicate a very large spill size. Reportedly between 1,200 and 4,000 fishing vessels had been commissioned to manually collect oil from the sea surface into barrels, with a reported average collection rate of 100 barrels per day per boat, for which they are paid about RMB 300 ($44 USD/barrel).  Some boats reportedly collected as many as 200 barrels per day, others less.  Each of these collection barrels holds about 50kg of oil (thus about 20 barrels = 1 ton), and thus the recovery capacity of an average vessel is estimated to be five tons per boat per day.  This equates to a conservative oil recovery rate of 6,000 tons per day.  Projecting this daily recovery estimate over a 10-day response period, it is estimated that 60,000 tons (430,000 barrels) of oil may have been recovered so far. Interestingly, this is more oil than has been recovered so far in the massive BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which had far more responders and equipment deployed at a cost of over $2 billion USD.

Thus, both our estimates of the Dalian spill - 90,000 tons and 60,000 tons - are significantly higher than the government's figure.  If the spill were on the order of 90,000 tons (650,000 barrels, 27 million gallons), that would make the Dalian spill one of the world's 30 largest.  Due to lack of reliable data, the statistical confidence limits around this estimate are large, perhaps 50% above or below.  It would be extremely useful to have better data from PetroChina and the government.

2.      Response

The response effort has been massive and surprisingly effective, with generally very low-tech approaches. The effort to extinguish the fire was effective in very dangerous and difficult situations.

The spill response consists of the following: about 30km of spill containment boom placed offshore; many kilometers of 1m wide, 5-10cm thick straw mats placed in floating oil to absorb oil; some 10,000-20,000 fishermen on 1,200-4,000 fishing boats manually collecting oil and oiled absorbent straw mats with bare hands, buckets, nets, ladles, and chopsticks, and then transferring the oil into 50kg plastic barrels. The barrels are then transferred from fishing boats to one of 16 collection and transfer stations ashore.   It is unknown where this recovered oil is then taken, but much of the oil appears relatively pure, and thus some has been reportedly transported back to the PetroChina oil facility in Dalian for recycling and reintroduction into storage.  Oiled debris (sticks, mats, etc.) has likely been disposed in local landfills.  Some 20 oil-skimming vessels were reportedly used offshore.  Some chemical dispersant (product unknown at this time) was sprayed on oil around the shellfish farms in shallow water, which is not an appropriate location for such dispersant application.  In addition, a reported 23 tons of bacterial material was sprayed on to the slick, to enhance biodegradation of the oil.  At-sea application of bacteria to enhance bioremediation of oil spills is not a standard response technique, and its effectiveness and impacts are unknown.

None of the cleanup workers we observed had any Hazardous Material (HazMat) protective gear (gloves, HazMat suits, boots, masks), and many were covered with thick fresh oil.  Some workers have gone to local hospitals with symptoms such as nausea and skin and respiratory ailments - all signs of acute chemical exposure.  We observed a heavily exposed worker virtually unresponsive taken to a local hospital.

Crude oil, particularly when it is fresh, consists of large amounts of toxic chemical components and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are known carcinogens (e.g. polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons - PAHs).  At least one firefighter drowned in oil-covered waters, perhaps a first in any oil spill.

Observations on July 29 showed that the cleanup is far from complete.  There remain substantial amounts of oil offshore, nearshore, and on beaches.  A clean-beach guideline used in other nations requires that if one can see, smell, or feel any oil, the beach is unsafe for human use and should remain closed.

3.      Impact on tourism industry

The spill may have significant impact on the local tourism economy, particularly if oil continues to wash ashore on important tourism beaches. While the government tries to limit the negative impacts on the tourism industry, it is also very important for the government to take reasonable precautions to prevent public exposure to toxic oil.  In the affected areas, some beaches were closed only a few days after the incident, and some beaches were reopened and remain open now. As beaches remain closed for public health reasons, this may reduce tourist travel to and expenditures in Dalian over the summer.  It is advised that all beaches and waters used by the tourism industry should be closely monitored for oil contamination over the remainder of the summer.

4.      Impact on fishing industry

The spill has had a major impact on the region's commercial fishing industry, particularly the many offshore shellfish farms.  Many of the scallops growing in these farms were exposed to oil, and these will likely either die or be otherwise unfit for human consumption.  Additionally, the water-soluble component of the spilled oil has almost certainly contaminated not only shellfish farms, but also the shallow seabed nearshore.  This will affect other fisheries in the area.  With the probable loss of this year's production on the shellfish farms, the economic toll will run into the tens of millions of USD.  It is unclear at this time what the long-term impacts will be to the fishing industry, but the short-term impact has been very serious.

5.      Environmental impact

Whenever a crude oil spill of this magnitude occurs in a productive coastal ecosystem, the environmental damage will invariably be very serious.  The coastal waters of Dalian have been very seriously polluted, and most organisms in the local waters have likely been exposed to toxic oil.  This toxic exposure will result in some acute mortality, as well as chronic long-term injury.   Additionally, some unanticipated environmental injuries may develop in the future, as has been seen in other oil spills.  Many kilometers of shoreline have already been oiled, and the extent of the offshore area impacted likely exceeds 1,000 square kilometers already.  It is likely that oil in shoreline sediments may be in evidence for many years into the future.  In addition, residue from burned oil generally sinks, and thus there may be substantial contamination of the seabed nearshore due to burned oil residue.


1.      Information Transparency

In environmental disasters such as oil spills, chemical spills, etc., it is essential that the public receives accurate and complete information regarding the scale and impact of the disaster.  The public deserves to know everything the government and responsible parties know about the disaster. [Note: According to the preliminary investigation by the government, four responsible parties in this accident have been identified: PetroChina International Co. Ltd. (Dalian), China National Petroleum Fuel Oil Co. Ltd., TianJin HuiShengDa Petroleum Technology. Ltd., and Q.Pro Inspection & Technical Services Co.] Unfortunately, it appears that neither the responsible parties nor the government has provided such fully transparent and accurate disclosure regarding the Dalian spill, and we respectfully call upon both parties do so immediately.

2.      Comprehensive Risk Assessment of China's Oil Infrastructure

The government should commission a comprehensive engineering assessment of any and all risks in China's oil infrastructure, including all oil terminals and tank farms, oil pipelines, oil tanker transit, and oil production facilities.  The risk assessment should identify potential failures in all such infrastructure, how best to minimize such risks, and develop a plan to upgrade China's entire oil infrastructure to the highest global standards with best available technology.

3.      Develop / Improve National and Regional Oil Spill Response Plan

The government should develop a National Oil Spill Response (Contingency) Plan that will enable a more effective response to major oil spills, including modernizing oil response equipment, better HazMat safety for response workers, pre-staged response equipment, and pre-spill training and oil spill response practice drills.  The national plan should clarify conditions under which chemical dispersants and in-situ burning would be used in marine oil spills, and prohibit these techniques from being used nearshore or in shallow water.  And a review of all oil spill response organizations in China should be conducted regularly.

4.      Conduct Environmental Damage Assessment

In response to major marine oil spills, it is necessary for governments to conduct a comprehensive environmental damage assessment program. We have seen no evidence that such a scientific damage assessment is underway in Dalian. Thus, the government should immediately organize and deploy a comprehensive scientific environmental damage assessment program to identify environmental damage caused by the spill, inform the public of impacts, develop a restoration program to mitigate the environmental harm caused, and present a claim for financial damage to the responsible parties. The damage assessment should monitor the trajectory and the spread of the oil using aerial reconnaissance, satellite imagery, and water sampling.  As well, the damage assessment should identify impacts to the shorelines, seabed, water column, fish and aquaculture facilities, and other components of the marine and coastal ecosystem.  A restoration program might include establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to offset the damage caused by the spill.

5.      Review China's Oil Pollution Laws

The government should commission a thorough review of all of China's oil spill laws, and recommend specific improvements and effective regulatory development and implementation. This review should encompass the adequacy of the current oil-spill liability regime in China, and whether it is sufficient for a worst-case discharge.  As well, adequate attention in the legal review should be given to options for environmental restoration and mitigation of oil spill damages.

6.      Sustainable Energy

The government should use the Dalian oil spill as justification to commit additional funding for the urgent transition from oil (and coal) to a sustainable energy economy for China.  Additional favorable government policies and investment are needed in clean-energy research and development, energy efficiency, and low-carbon energy systems for China's sustainable future.