Chinese officials said Monday that an oil slick in coastal waters has been cleaned up 10 days after a massive explosion sent an estimated 1,500 tons of crude into the Yellow Sea along the northeastern port city of Dalian.
But beaches along Dalian's long shoreline remain closed indefinitely, with oil covering rocks and pebbles on the sand, and fishing has been banned until the end of the summer. Environmentalists say nearby bays are also polluted.
"This is a victory," the city's mayor, Li Wancai, said Monday in an interview with the Dalian Daily News. "The slick has been completely removed, and the oil has not spread to international waters or the Bohai Sea." Bohai is a northwestern arm of the Yellow Sea, off the coast of northern China.
Li credited thousands of fishermen and residents with cleaning up the spill, which occurred after a pipeline explosion July 16. The cleanup consisted of spraying oil-dispersant chemicals, planting oil-consuming bacteria and scooping up the thickest part of the oil spill into plastic barrels.
There were no casualties in the explosion and ensuing fire, but one firefighter drowned after being swept from a boat by a wave.
Environmentalists say that although the majority of the oil has been removed, damage remains extensive.
Han Xu, a member of Greenpeace, which has been involved in cleanup efforts in Dalian since the explosion, says some bays are still covered with oil. Some aquaculture farms are seeing their crop output drop drastically.
"More devastating are the beaches that are totally covered in oil," Han said.
The thick, sticky black substance can still be seen in the water by the shoreline, as well as on the beach.
Han said children continued to play on the contaminated beaches, and tourists were still swimming in the water. He said some residents were even seen trying to clean up the oil from the ground with their bare hands.
Greenpeace says the environment will be adversely affected for at least 30 years. Government officials acknowledge that the cleanup campaign is not over. Li said that the focus must move "from the ocean to the land" and that efforts must be made to prevent oil onshore from seeping back into the ocean.
"The problem with cleaning up an oil spill is that it's everywhere," Han said.
Officials said the July 16 incident occurred when workers injected desulfurizer into a pipeline -- part of the refinement process -- and a fireball was ignited. The blaze raged at the harbor for 15 hours, shrouding the city in smoke.
The burst pipeline eventually spewed enough oil to cover 140 square miles with about 47,600 gallons of crude.
By comparison, the U.S. oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is estimated to have spewed between 94 million and 184 million gallons of oil.
The workers who injected the chemical were employed by PetroChina, a subsidiary of the state-owned oil and gas producer China National Petroleum Corp. and the owner of the damaged pipeline.
An investigation by the State Administration of Work Safety and the Ministry of Public Security found that company employees had not verified the safety of the strongly oxidizing chemical or used standard injection procedures.
Kuo is with The Times' Beijing Bureau. Tommy Yang in the bureau contributed to this report.