The East China Sea Oil Spill is the Worst Disaster of Its Kind


The oil spill in the East China Sea that shook the world two weeks ago will likely affect the environment much more than any other similar disaster in the past.

On January 6, the Panamanian-flagged Iranian-owned tanker Sanchi collided with Hong Kong-flagged cargo ship CF Crystal some 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Shanghai.

After the collision, the Sanchi caught fire and burned for more than a week. It sank on January 14 with all 32 crew members — 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis — presumed dead. Three bodies have been recovered to date.

east china sea oil spill

Now, two weeks after the grim incident, authorities and green groups are scrambling to determine its impact on marine life.

Ma Jun, a top environmentalist, said that the collision occurred within the Zhoushan shipping ground, which happens to be among the richest fishing territories in China, CNN noted.

east china sea oil spill

The Sanchi, however, is unlike anything the world has seen before. It carried and spilled 136,000 tons, or about 1 million barrels, of condensate, a highly flammable form of ultra light crude oil.

east china sea oil spill

Based on a mixture of hydrocarbons, condensate is lighter than black crude oil seen in most oil spills, but that does not mean it is easier to remove.

With heat and pressure, condensate takes the form of gas. However, it becomes liquid once brought up to the surface. The result is a compound more difficult to separate from water.

east china sea oil spill

Alex Hunt, a technical manager at the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, told The Atlantic:

“It’s typical for us to attend approximately 20 shipping incidents a year and we’ve been doing this for 50 years.”

“There have been other condensate spills, but this is the first condensate spill of this magnitude that we’ve dealt with, which gives you an impression of how rare cases like this are.”

east china sea oil spill

As of Wednesday, January 17, the spill covered an area of 101 square kilometers — just about the size of Paris — according to the Chinese State Oceanic Administration (SOA).

Unfortunately, it is not just condensate. On Thursday, January 18, the SOA said that previously unreported slicks have been spotted near the disaster site. This could be bunker fuel, the heavy oil that runs a ship’s engine.

According to Reuters, this type of fuel is noxious to marine organisms and difficult to remove once spilled to the sea. The Sanchi reportedly carried 1,000 tons at the time of collision.

east china sea oil spill

Paul Johnson, research fellow at Greenpeace International’s Science Unit at the University of Exeter, told The Independent that bunker fuel is “particularly dangerous to birds and other wildlife” but can still be fatal to marine animals such as dolphins and whales.

“The major impact is going to be living marine organisms that are exposed to the oil slick, which is quite a big one now. It’ll taint fish, it’ll kill fish. If cetaceans encounter it they could be at very severe risk of doing themselves some serious damage,” Johnson said.

The most current update on the impact that it could have on wildlife is that the spill has extended into humpback and grey whale migration routes and will certainly affect the breeding grounds of smaller species.

east china sea oil spill

So far, the SOA has taken four water samples from 22 spill sites, all exceeding petroleum substance standards.

Images via ChinaDaily