Unprecedented Oil Spill in the East China Sea

Another dangerous risk of the continued usage of fossil fuels.

Over the last two weeks, the maritime world has watched with horror as a tragedy has unfolded in the East China Sea. A massive Iranian tanker, the Sanchi, collided with a Chinese freighter carrying grain. Damaged and adrift, the tanker caught on fire, burned for more than a week, and sank. All 32 crew members are presumed dead.

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities and environmental groups have been trying to understand the environmental threat posed by the million barrels of hydrocarbons that the tanker was carrying. Because the Sanchi was not carrying crude oil, but rather condensate, a liquid by-product of natural gas and some kinds of oil production. According to Alex Hunt, a technical manager at the London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, which assists with oil spills across the world, there has never been a condensate spill like this.

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While studies of condensate’s environmental effects are limited, one lab study found that its toxicity to corals, for example, was greater than expected based on its molecular components.

In the best-case scenario, the fuel will come to the surface in a slick that is massive but thousandths-of-millimeters thin. From there, it would evaporate into the atmosphere. However, as Richard Steiner, an Alaska-based environmental consultant, told BuzzFeed News, “there’s a lot we don’t know about a major condensate spill since we’ve never seen one.” He described a scenario where there was an “invisible, subsurface toxic plume that is spreading outward from the site.”