Since July 16, when an explosion and fire ruptured a pipe linking a berthed oil tanker to an onshore storage facility at the PetroChina port, officials here have strained to minimize the scope of the damage. Their version of events, released shortly after the spill, states that a broken pipe leaked 1,500 metric tons, or about 11,000 barrels, of crude into the bay off Dalian’s northeastern coast. It states that the spill occurred after workers unloading oil from the berthed ship accidentally set off an explosion and fire and that the oil was quickly contained before it could enter international waters.
That remains the official story this week. But an investigation by the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace and accounts by two experts with authoritative knowledge of what happened make a compelling case for an alternative account.
The Greenpeace report, issued last week, said that as the fire from the explosion spread, large quantities of oil were deliberately released from onshore tanks to avert devastating damage to a tank at the storage facility that was filled with dimethylbenzene, a flammable and poisonous gas used to make aviation fuel and solvents. Had the oil fire reached that tank, the report said, the resulting explosion could have released a toxic cloud endangering the entire area.
This week, two experts with detailed knowledge of the accident confirmed that account, with one saying that the cloud could have killed thousands of people.