More than a week ago, an Iranian oil tanker sunk in the East China Sea. Last week, authorities reported the spill had spread to cover 40 square miles. Now, that number has tripled to 128 square miles.
The oil tanker was on its way to South Korea when the collision occurred on January 6. The entire 32-person crew died, and officials have recovered only three bodies. The tanker, named Sanchi, burned for almost a week before sinking into the East China Sea, taking down 136,000 tons of crude condensate oil with it.
The crude condensate is a colorless, odorless liquid form of oil. It’s much lighter than the crude oil that runs through, say, the Dakota Access Pipeline here in the U.S. It’s used in things like jet fuel and petrol. However, the condensate oil is much more volatile and poses more unknowns in the case of a spill.
These slicks aren’t made up of the condensate oil, though. They’re coming from the diesel fuel that was powering the tanker. Three Chinese Coast Guard vessels were assessing the spill Sunday night, but they still haven’t released information on whether any of the condensate oil has leaked into the East China Sea—or how it might be impacting the sea’s marine life. The condensate oil cost National Iranian Tanker Co. $60 million in lost profit, but it could cost the company even more in environmental damages if it’s leaking.
In short: The condensate oil is sure to be no bueno.
“Gas condensates represent the ‘light ends’ of oil—that is, the low molecular weight compounds that are highly volatile and flammable, and very similar to gasoline,” Peter Hodson, a professor in the Department of Biology and School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University, told Gizmodo. “The hazards from a spill include fire and explosion (the circumstance at the site of the accident) and rapid mortality of any surface animals (marine birds and marine mammals), or fish and invertebrates just underneath the surface (top 10 meters of water).”
The sword tip squid spawns in this region of the sea, according to The Agence France-Presse. Blue crab and yellow croaker fish also winter there. Humpbacks and gray whales migrate through the East China Sea, too. Experts are advising people to avoid seafood from this region, but overfishing has largely left the East China Sea’s fish population defunct.
Chinese authorities scoped out the sunken vessel using robots Sunday to see what’s actually happening underwater. Robots can recover oil that survives these types of accidents and even plug leaks, according to Chemical & Engineering News. Officials want to retrieve the wreckage, but that could lead to another explosion. They’re still assessing the situation.
If all is clear, that’d just leave the diesel fuel. The currents in the sea are pretty active, so that’s likely to help disperse the fuel, too. Still, these two contaminants are nothing compared to what the East China Sea sees on the regular, said Katherine Mackey, an earth systems professor at the University of California at Irvine who has researched pollution in this part of the sea.
“It’s another layer of anthropogenic disturbance,” Mackey told Earther. “In the grand scheme of things—I don’t want to underplay the importance of [the spill], of course it’s terrible that a tanker would explode and that that oil would make its way into the environment—but the sheer scale of the other types of pollutions that are coming from mainland China into the marginal seas is a much, much bigger problem, I think, than a single ship.”
Mackey is talking about the consistent, large-scale, regional sources of pollution like agriculture and industry, both of which eventually bring pollutants (through runoff traveling down rivers or particles spewing into the atmosphere) to the East China Sea.
Marine life is already suffering at the hands of the algae blooms resulting from this pollution. She sees these as “the big fish to go after” and said that getting these sources of pollution under control would help restore the East China Sea.
“That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be better regulations to help ensure tankers are safe and that they’re not breaking down and leaking oil into the sea, as well,” she clarified. “Both are important; it’s just a question of the magnitude of it.”