One lunchtime in November last year, Zhang Yan walked into his kitchen and was met by an acrid odour that made him nauseous. He was cooking sea bass from the family fish farm, near the site of a major chemical leak earlier that month.
Despite official notices that local water and air quality are up to standard and aquatic products safe to eat, Zhang is adamant that the leak, of “C9 aromatic solvent”, was to blame for his ruined lunch. He and others from the area are still worried. Xiaocuo has a population of 8,000 and is the closest village to the site of the incident. The local fish farms sell to Quanzhou’s port district, and to Quanzhou and Fuzhou cities.
Early in the morning of November 4, workers at Donggang Petrochemicals were hosing C9 aromatic solvent onto a tanker at Quanzhou’s port. The hose broke and 69 tonnes of the substance leaked into the ocean. C9 is an industrial solvent of similar toxicity to petrol and is an irritant to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. The chemical leak has been blamed on breaches of rules by staff and the company’s failure to identify potential risks.
Zhang, 40, spends most of the year working in Xiamen, but returns to Xiaocuo once a month to help on the family’s fish farm. He and his three brothers have a stable income and have all built their own houses. But the chemical leak has upset their usually calm lives.
The villagers mostly make a living by fishing or aquaculture, building net cages in calmer waters that are supported by floats. These are often tied together in rows.
“I heard the news in the morning. There was a big slick of yellow oil on the sea and a foul smell. The whole village was out discussing it. The stuff was melting the floats on the cages, so we knew it wasn’t any ordinary chemical,” Zhang said. “We were worried that the fish would get polluted and news would get out. How would we sell the fish then?”
C9 soon became the main topic of village discussion. Many of the port’s fishermen needed hospital treatment following the leak. The chemical dissolved the floats on the fish cages, which then sank. The fish either died or escaped. A government notice said that 0.6 square kilometres of ocean was affected, with impact on fish farming concentrated in Xiaocuo: 152 fish farmers and 0.2 square kilometres.
The traders don’t dare buy fish from Xiaocuo now.
The fish cages are the only asset many families have, and a row of them can be worth up to a million yuan (US$145,000). Xiao Wei, 58 and also a local, found his family’s cages had sunk. He tried to attach new floats, but “the new ones melted quickly as well.” Xiao has been fish farming for 28 years. Close proximity to the pollutant meant his chest felt tight the next day and he was taken to hospital.
Damage to the fish farms
Despite an official announcement that water quality is now good enough for fish farming, it is hard to assess the long-term impact. According to a report in Caijing magazine, fish farmers spend over one million yuan a year on juvenile fish, food and equipment. But concerns about pollution will make consumers wary of fish from here. In an interview with Xinhua, Xiaocuo villagers said “the traders don’t dare buy fish from Xiaocuo now. They’ve heard it’ll be months before the pollution is gone, so everyone is worried”.
To rebuild confidence, local officials arranged a live broadcast of people eating fish in the Xiaocuo village square. But privately the locals wondered if the fish were even produced locally. “What we want to know is what impact the pollution will have on the fish and the environment,” said Zhang. “When will we be able to sell our fish like normal? Who’s responsible for compensating us?”
Xiao Wei and Zhang Yan both say it is hard to put a figure on their losses. How many fish died? How many escaped? How many will die as a result of the pollution? How many fish cages have been lost? How to calculate the impact of the incident on the reputation of the local fishing sector?
Locals here in Quangang, Quanzhou’s port district, have always made a living from fishing, and the industry has both financial and cultural importance. The proximity to Taiwan has resulted in plenty of money flowing in from Taiwanese investors, and the petrochemical sector has become crucial: in 2017 it accounted for 56.3% of industrial output in the district.
Conflict between the petrochemical sector, traditional lifestyles and the environment has become more apparent. The local government, keen to see economic growth, has rushed to approve new projects, and as a result chemical plants, fish farms and residential areas sit adjacent to each other. The chemical leak occurred only a few hundred metres from fish farms. Meanwhile villagers reside just across the road from the Donggang petrochemical zone.
In 2016, realising the dangers of having chemical plants in such close proximity to residential areas, the local government declared a 550-metre safety buffer around the petrochemical zone. Residential buildings would not be allowed within that area, with 17 villages to be relocated by 2020. This covers 50,000 residents, including the villagers of Xiaocuo.
Zhang Yan, whose family has lived off the sea for generations, was not happy. “What do you do then, if you’ve no other way of making a living?” Zhang’s home is less than a hundred metres from the petrochemical zone, and while they know it isn’t safe, he says that “for generations our family has believed we should make a living from local resources”.
And despite the fact the relocations were announced some time ago, a lack of funds means that most villages have not been moved. The high cost of relocations has driven demand for land reclamation. The Cross-border Environment Concern Association (CECA) has found that 43.5 square kilometres of land has already been reclaimed from Meizhou Bay, where Xiaocuo is, with about one half of this land used for the petrochemical industry – an area equivalent to 100 Bird’s Nest stadiums.
The company official directly responsible for the leak has been detained. But more than a month later there is no decision on compensation for the villagers’ losses.
On November 11, the Quangang district government arranged an emergency transfer of 5.5 million yuan – 1,000 yuan per fish cage – as compensation for losses to fish farmers. Data on losses have been compiled for fish farmers in Xiaocuo but not for ocean-going fishermen and others. Zhang thinks the emergency transfer was insufficient: “Some households have lost millions of yuan in fish cages alone.”
Professor Liu Xiang, of the China University of Politics and Law’s (CUPL) Centre for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, told China Dialogue Ocean that currently the authorities will be going through procedures to identify who is responsible and working to have that party pay compensation. But that does not mean all damages will be made good, and the locals could also seek relief through the courts.
Wang Canfa, professor at CUPL’s School of Civil, Commercial and Economic Law, said that under the Marine Environment Protection Law and the Tort Liability Law the locals could seek compensation through the courts for losses such as fish cages, and for clean-up costs and loss of earnings. However, he added that the legislation does not allow for compensation to be paid for reduced sales due to reputational damage.
Environmental organisations are also considering bringing public interest lawsuits, as the company involved had not carried out the proper procedures and the facility had been built before approval was granted. Wang Wenyong, chief legal advisor to the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation, said that it was gathering evidence and may bring a case.
Since the chemical leak, nobody knows what to do with the fish left on their farms.
Ma Yan, associate professor at CUPL’s School of Civil, Commercial and Economic Law, said that marine pollution issues are complex, particularly in China, where the sea is owned by the state, but usage rights transferred to various other parties. Overlapping interests can often lead to conflict over environmental protection and safety.
“Nobody’s going out fishing now, as the fish just aren’t selling. Nobody knows what to do with the fish left in the fish farms,” Zhang said. He is worried for the future: “How long after a pollutant like that gets into the water will the fish be safe to eat?”
The villagers of Xiaocuo are doing everything they can to protect their rights. While waiting for compensation proposals, they have had the village committee ask the company to pay 200 yuan per villager in annual health insurance costs, as compensation for the impact on their health. No agreement has yet been reached.
“We want to be able to continue to make a living, but also stay healthy,” Zhang said. “But it seems difficult.”
Some names in this article have been changed.