Over the last two weeks, the maritime world has watched with horror as a tragedy has unfolded in the East China Sea. A massive Iranian tanker, the Sanchi, collided with a Chinese freighter carrying grain. Damaged and adrift, the tanker caught on fire, burned for more than a week, and sank. All 32 crew members are presumed dead.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities and environmental groups have been trying to understand the environmental threat posed by the million barrels of hydrocarbons that the tanker was carrying. Because the Sanchi was not carrying crude oil, but rather condensate, a liquid by-product of natural gas and some kinds of oil production. According to Alex Hunt, a technical manager at the London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, which assists with oil spills across the world, there has never been a condensate spill like this.
“It’s typical for us to attend approximately 20 shipping incidents a year and we’ve been doing this for 50 years,” Hunt says. “There have been other condensate spills, but this is the first condensate spill of this magnitude that we’ve dealt with, which gives you an impression of how rare cases like this are.” A 2016 Canadian environmental risk report on condensates also noted “the small size and low frequency of spills to marine water.”