The Dark Patch on Bohai Bay
Fishermen from Hebei, Shandong and Tianjin provinces say they stand to lose 1 billion yuan in profits as a result of last June's Bohai Bay oil spill. After six months of litigation in local courts, academics say the fishermen should take their business elsewhere – to the United States.
The first attempt was filed on August 31 when the fishermen's representatives from Leting County of Hebei Province sued Conoco for 330 million yuan in damages. The Tianjin Maritime Court refused to hear the case, stating there was insufficient proof.
At a legal forum in Beijing in November, Jia Fangyi, a lawyer at the Beijing-based Huacheng Law Firm said he felt disappointed by the results of the case in August. He filed a case on behalf of a scallop fisherman from Yantai city in Shandong Province in November at maritime courts in Qingdao but the case has yet to be heard.
Several lawyers say that the fishing industry's total losses in Hebei, Shandong and Tianjin provinces could be over 1 billion yuan. According to An Jinlong, a fisherman in Matouying Township of Hebei Province, 70 percent of sea cucumbers in an 8.6 hectare area have died this year as a result of the oil spill. The average death rate the previous year was only 20 percent.
But lawyers say the biggest problem in filing a lawsuit is compiling the evidence. They say that verifying whether Bohai Bay's oil contamination originated from the ConocoPhillips spill is difficult. While the Ministry of Agriculture opened an investigation into Hebei Province's fishery losses several months ago, it has yet to confirm that pollution in Bohai Bay originated from last summer's oil spill.
An and other fishermen worry that they will get little or no compensation like other victims of oil spills in China. On November 25, the State Council issued sentences for 14 people involved in the Dalian oil spill, China's largest spill so far, after one and a half years from the date of the catastrophe. While a few officials were punished, the issue of compensation for fishermen and fish farmers is still sitting in the courts.
"The victims expect fair and reasonable compensation rather than a compromised result through government mediation," said one lawyer.
On November 11, the State Oceanic Administration released a report stating ConocoPhillips violated the Overall Development Plan during the production process on the Penglai 19-3 oil field and did not take necessary measures after obvious accident signs emerged. But the statement failed to estimate environmental and economic losses as a result of the spill.
One SOA official said the delay in action – compared to the U.S. government's response to the Deepwater Horizon spill – is due to the fact that the Bohai Bay spill is considered smaller. He also said that China's legal system is not developed enough to handle such cases.
Legal scholars in China point to other less developed countries that have successfully processed oil spill cases. In November, Chevron's oil spill in the Vlad area of the Campos Basin was smaller than that of Bohai oil spill area. Chevron estimated the oil spill size to range from 400 and 650 barrels, while the Brazilian government said it was as large as 2,000 barrels. In Bohai, ConocoPhillips announced it spilled more than 3,000 barrels of oil.
Yet another similarity between these two oil spill cases is that both occurred under business ventures with state-owned companies. Chevron was in an agreement with the state-owned Petroleo Brasileiro SA while ConocoPhillips was working with CNOOC.
On November 21, only two weeks after the oil leak caused by the U.S. oil giant Chevron, Brazilian courts fined Chevron for 17.5 million yuan and suspended the company's oil exploration permits in Brazil.
While several legal scholars discussed the feasibility of filing a lawsuit in the U.S., others said such an action could set a harmful precedent for litigation in Chinese courts.
At the end of the day, some just want to see the issue resolved in China.
"The Chinese government should launch a compensation program to provide for the fishermen instead," said one legal scholar.
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