Tale of Two Continents: A Quest For Justice for Chinese Fisherman Harmed by 2011 Oil Spill


Imagine, if you will, an oil spill that in all too many ways is very much like BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe off the Gulf Coast. A major global oil giant, partnering on a deepwater oil rig in environmentally sensitive waters, suffers a series of accidents and then compounds the damage by trying to cover up the incident for days. Meanwhile, the size of the oil slick spreads across the sea surface. Tensions rise, as does public anger. Critical sea beds are contaminated, and a growing number of fishermen are in danger of losing their way of life. The one major difference between this episode and the ongoing tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is this: The suffering fishermen are also completely shut out of a rigged justice system by one of the world’s most powerful and unyielding oligarchies.

This is exactly the maddening scenario along the coast of Bohai Bay in northern China, where a major offshore oil spill in 2011 has caused widespread environmental harm and wreaked havoc with the lives of fishermen who work there. Despite the damage caused by the oil that spilled from rigs in which an American oil giant, ConocoPhillips, has a substantial share, the rule of law in China is such that everyday citizens like these fishermen can be denied access.

It’s a situation that makes one give thanks for the American way of justice. For a number of months, I’ve been working with a team of U.S. lawyers that has been researching how these Chinese plaintiffs can bring their case in Texas, where executives for ConocoPhillips made many of the decisions that created the widespread swath of destruction in Bohai Bay. I’ve been working with two Houston attorneys, Tom and Kelly Bilek. This week, we filed a complaint in the U.S. Court for the Southern District in Houston, Tex., on behalf of 30 Chinese fisherman. We are bringing the case in ConocoPhillips’ home city of Houston, since there’s no way to press their legitimate claims in China.

This legal tale of two continents began thousands of miles away, little more than a year after the BP spill off Louisiana called attention to the dangers  posed by poorly regulated offshore oil drilling. Bohai Bay is the innermost inlet of the Yellow Sea, east of Bejing. Its waters are fertile breeding grounds for scallops, clams, crabs and other types of seafood, but in recent years the bay has also attracted interest for its offshore oil deposits. There are now six rigs in the Penglai 19-3 oil patch in which ConocoPhillips owns a major stake.In June of 2011, a series of oil leaks — which we believe were the result of negligence by the owners — began taking place from at least two of the rigs. Despite a lack of public information, we believe these leaks are serious — and ongoing. Over the course of three months, the oil slick on the surface of Bohai Bay grew to six times the size of the island nation of Singapore.

Just as what took place in the Gulf of Mexico, the damage to Bohai Bay and its fisheries was immediate and severe. Dead seaweed and rotting fish were discovered in the waters off the island of Nanhuangcheng. The Penglai crude oil, which is highly acidic and chock full of heavy metals and salts, is destroying the habitat of the scallops and curbing the seafood harvest in the bay. Because Bohai is a half-closed bay, the polluted water disperses slowly, if at all.

But because of the closed nature of Chinese society and the inherent flaws in the undemocratic state regulating its own commercial enterprise, justice has been impossible. And CononoPhillips has not taken responsibility for the local fishermen whose livelihood has been stripped away from them and won’t fully deal with the pollution, either. The 30 fishermen who are our clients have attempted to follow the rules; they brought their claim in November before a Chinese court which — unlike their U.S. counterparts — has enormous power to decide whether the case will ever be heard. The law requires a decision within seven days, but so far the Quingdao Marine Court has uttered nothing in more than six months. This lack of fairness and impartially in a legal system that is clearly under political control is appalling.

The failure to get a fair trial is a twist on a story that is otherwise all too familiar to those of us who’ve been doing battle with BP and the U.S. authorities here on the Gulf Coast. In one sense, this should be a cautionary tale — that both the risks of deepwater drilling and the global arrogance of Big Oil know no boundary. But the rigged nature of the Chinese legal system is an added layer of cruelty for these modest fishermen. That is what we are fighting to rectify inside an American courtroom.

Following link is the oil spill homepage from China Central Television (CCTV), the state owned national television press.


Following news are from ConocoPhillips website:

07-13-2011 Update on Bohai Bay Oil Cleanup and Production Curtailment:


09-06-2011 ConocoPhillips To Establish Bohai Bay Fund:


09-18-2011ConocoPhillips To Establish Second Bohai Bay Fund


12-21-2011 ConocoPhillips Provides Further Details on Bohai Bay Funds


01-24-2012 ConocoPhillips Reaches Settlement Agreement Related to Bohai Bay Incidents


04-30-2012 ConocoPhillips and CNOOC Reach Agreement with the State Oceanic Administration


Here are some news from miscellaneous websites:


© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Dear Stuart, could you please tell me something regarding the Chinese Oil Spill Victims’ case in Houston Court, does it accepted by the could under the anounced tectative hearing on 1 Oct.

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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