Before the district of Quangang in Fujian province emerged as a hub for refining petrochemicals many of the locals made their livings by fishing.
Once the refinery opened, it was an uncomfortable coexistence. Tankers queued up next to edible cargoes as villagers gathered abalone, eel, crab and octopus just a couple of kilometres away.
On November 4 these two worlds collided when seven tonnes of the aromatic solvent C9 leaked into the waters of Meizhou Bay.
There was no public notification about the chemical spill but when villagers woke to a caustic smell in the early hours they rushed to their fish farms to investigate.
Soon they were scooping a nasty yellow substance off the water’s surface in a desperate bid to save their fish stocks beneath.
The first formal announcement about the spill said the contaminant was oil. Later the local authorities clarified that it was C9, a petroleum derivative used in the manufacture of industrial paints.
The Global Times reported that the chemical slick had polluted about 0.6 square kilometres of water, causing millions of yuan of damage to 152 fishing families. The pungent smell also sent 53 people to hospital. One ended up in intensive care after passing out from the fumes.
The area is also home to Fujian Salt Group, a state-owned salt farm, which has stopped drawing seawater since the spill.
The refinery owners, Fujian Donggang Petrochemical, explained that the substance had leaked during a transfer between the wharf and a transport ship.
One might ask how it is that a refinery was approved so close to the fish farms, or, conversely, why the fish farms weren’t moved when the refinery was built.
The physical proximity of these very different industries has been of concern to the local government, which has been trying to relocate the residents of nearby villages.
But many people have refused to move because the substitute houses are inland and there is little employment nearby. One elderly fisherman told Caixin he didn’t want to be uprooted because he would have to give up work and he would become a burden on his family.
Seven people have been detained over the incident – three from the petrochemical company and four more from the oil tanker carrying the C9. The local government is also taking flak for its hesitant response to the leak. “This incident aroused huge controversy. Apart from the seriousness of the accident, it will create resentment in the hearts of the local people for a long time,” warned state broadcaster CCTV in a commentary.
One of the most shocking aspects of the initial reaction from the authorities was that they expected local people with little protective gear to carry out the clean-up of the toxic waste.
And even if professionals had been brought in, there was no way of cleaning up the hydrocarbon spill completely, an environmental scientist told Caijing magazine.
Worse still, the priorities of the clean-up effort often seemed to be presentational in tone, locals said, reporting that one official had instructed them to “make the water look clean”.
The local government also insisted that children should continue to go to school despite the noxious smell in the air.
The question now is what happens to these communities once the the newspapers move on from the story of the contamination. Economically, the prospects look bleak. The day after the spill the local agriculture department suspended sales of aquaculture products from the area and it isn’t clear whether local fishermen will be allowed to start producing again.
Also unknown: how much compensation they will get for the way that the leak has disrupted their livelihoods.
Keeping track, Nov 30, 2018: The chemical leakage was actually 69.1 tonnes, nearly ten times the amount reported initially, according to the Quanzhou Municipal Governmen that publicised its findings on Sunday. The investigation suggested that the accident was largely a result of human error. It started with Fujian Donggang Petrochemical failing to repair its faulty dockside container crane (generally used for loading and unloading intermodal containers from ships). That caused the workers to transfer the oil with some aging hoses manually, which was a violation of the dock’s safety standard. Those hoses unfortunately broke at midnight amid receding tides and led to the disastrous spill.
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