Crews fear massive explosion on burning Iranian oil tanker near China

World Today

In this photo provided by Korea Coast Guard, the Panama-registered tanker “Sanchi” is seen ablaze after a collision with a Hong Kong-registered freighter off China’s eastern coast Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. The oil tanker collided with a bulk freighter and caught fire off China’s eastern coast, leaving its entire crew of 32 missing, most of them Iranians, authorities said. (Korea Coast Guard via AP)

A massive effort is underway to control a blaze on an Iranian oil tanker off the Chinese coast.

CGTN’s Sean Callebs has been following the developments.

Since Saturday evening, a fire has burned out of control on an Iranian tanker loaded with a highly volatile, ultra-light crude oil. Officials fear this has created the potential for a massive maritime explosion, which could add to an already deadly accident.

There were 32 crew members aboard the Iranian tanker; one body has been recovered, the rest are missing.

The tanker collided with a Hong Kong-registered freighter filled with grain from the United States. The incident happened about 300 kilometers off the coast of Shanghai, in an area not frequented by large vessels like oil tankers or container ships.

“The Chinese government takes maritime accidents like this very seriously, and has already dispatched many search and rescue teams to the scene…. even though, from what we understand, the weather conditions are extremely unfavorable,” according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

Experts say the risk of a massive explosion is high, because the ship was carrying a crude oil called condensate. When the hydrocarbon-filled liquid mixes with water, it evaporates quickly. But once it reacts with air, it becomes a potent and flammable gas, creating the risk of explosion.

Environmental group Greenpeace released a statement, saying:

“We are worried about the potential environmental impact that could be caused by leakage from the vessel that was holding almost 42 million gallons of crude oil. A clean up procedure is already underway, and we will be monitoring its progress.”

In September of last year, beaches in Greece were fouled after a tanker went down off the coast carrying 2,5000 tons of crude. Further back in 2002, the worst spill to ever hit Spain polluted thousands of beaches when the Prestige went down carrying 50,000 tons of oil.

Those spills, however, are dwarfed by damage from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The ship ran aground, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil in Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound, where oil fouled nearly 2,100 kilometers of coastline.

A small flotilla is trying to contain the damage – China has seven vessels on site, and the Republic of Korea sent a ship and a helicopter. A U.S. Navy aircraft is also looking for missing crew members.