HOUSTON (CN)- ConocoPhillips oil platforms leaked 50,000 tons of oil into China's Bohai Sea, creating a slick that covers 6,200 square kilometers, "an area six times the size of Singapore," according to 30 Chinese fishermen who sued here in Federal Court, claiming the Chinese government would not let them sue there.
"The Bohai Sea is a semi-closed sea which has a low degree of water exchange with the rest of the Yellow Sea. As a result, oil spilled in Bohai is not readily dispersed or diluted, as would oil spilled in other waters," lead plaintiff Peiqing Cong says in the 21-page complaint.
The Bohai Sea is on China's northeast coast.
The fishermen say they the spill has had a devastating effect on scallops and other seafood they harvest to feed their families.
They claim that after the spill "there was a sharp deterioration of the quality of the Bohai Sea water, and a corresponding die-off of micro-organisms and plankton. Further, scallops' habitat was destroyed, and a large amount of the Bohai Sea's scallops and other seafood died, stopped growing, or have grown abnormally slow."
ConocoPhillips struck a deal with China's government to develop its largest offshore oilfield, known as the Penglai 19-3 oilfield, and the joint operations include six platforms, according to the complaint.
"On June 4, 2011, it was discovered that two platforms at the Penglai 19-3 field were leaking oil and oil-based drilling mud into the Bohai Sea," the complaint states. "It would later come to light that there are many spills, including some that are ongoing.
"The Chinese government's State Oceanic Administration ('SOA') - which is the arm of China's Ministry of Land and Resources that is tasked with permitting, regulating the coastal zone, and environmental protection - initially tried to cover up the spills. There was a month-long delay before news of the leak was released, and this came only after the public was tipped off anonymously.
On July 5, 2011, SOA classified 840 square kilometers of seawater near the Penglai 19-3 oil field as Inferior Grade IV. The oil concentration value in the seawater was 40 times greater than the historical background value.
The maximum concentration value was 86.4 times of the historical background value.
"Despite SOA's finding, the defendant initially continued to operate, causing more oil to spill into the Bohai Sea."
Conoco Phillips called the leak "seepage," the fishermen say.
"On July 13, 2011, defendant ConocoPhillips admitted that 'seepage' was observed from the 'ConocoPhillips-operated Peng Lai B Platform,'" the complaint states. "As a result, 'ConocoPhillips responded quickly to both events and mobilized extensive clean-up equipment, facilities and personnel . ....' The defendant also promised that 'ConocoPhillips will continue to work diligently and safely to finalize clean up activities and will be implementing additional reservoir management and field operating procedures to eliminate risks of additional releases.'
"On July 13, 2011, defendant ConocoPhillips announced that 'SOA instructed ConocoPhillips to suspend production from Platforms B and C.'"
The fishermen claim that on Aug. 19, 2011, ConocoPhillips "issued a statement that estimated that '115 cubic meters (700 barrels) of oil were released into the sea and 400 cubic meters (2,500 barrels) of mineral oil based drilling mud (MOBM) were released onto the seabed.'" (Parentheses in complaint.)
But on Aug. 20, according to the complaint, "the state news agency reported that nine new oil spill sources were found in the Bohai Sea."
"On August 26, 2011, SOA described the spill as 'the most serious marine ecological incident in China.'"
"On Aug. 31, ConocoPhillips told China that "it had already sealed off the leaks," the complaint states.
In September, ConocoPhillips accepted responsibility for the oil spills and announced that it would set up a Bohai Bay Compensation Fund for people affected by the spill, the fishermen say.
On Sept. 18, the oil company "announced its spill estimate of 'approximately 700 barrels (115 cubic meters) of oil into Bohai Bay and approximately 2,500 barrels (400 cubic meters) of mineral oil-based drilling mud (MOBM),' which is a grand total of approximately 440 tons," the complaint states.
But the fishermen claim: "POSCO Research Institute reported that the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Sciences (CRAES) estimates that at least 50,000 tons of oil has been spilled into the sea. ...
"On November 10, 2011, the North Sea Branch of SOA's monitoring report indicated that oil continued to leak from Platform C.
"On November 11, 2011, SOA announced that an area of 6,200 square kilometers of water was polluted with oil, and classified this issue as a serious oil spill accident in the sea."
The fishermen say their representatives filed a complaint in Quingdao Marine Court in November 2011, which the court has so far refused to accept or reject-though it has just 7 days to do so.
"The Quingdao Marine Court is notorious for blocking lawsuits," the fishermen say.
They claim that SOA "investigated more spills 'still occurring' at the site on Dec. 13, but that ConocoPhillips claimed three days later that it had "found little or no evidence of environmental damage."
"In April 2012, ConocoPhillips reached an agreement with Chinese regulators to resolve pending government claims related to the Bohai Sea spills; however, this agreement did not include the claims of the plaintiffs in this matter," according to the complaint.
The fishermen say they had no choice but to file the lawsuit in the United States.
"In China's court system, an injured party must ask a Chinese government court for permission to bring a suit," the complaint states. "The Shandong fishermen asked for permission to sue, but unsurprisingly, the Chinese government court has blocked the suit.
"A U.S. State Department report previously commented on the 'lack of due process in [Chinese] judicial proceedings, [and] political control of courts and judges.'
"Interestingly, the Chinese court neither officially accepted nor rejected the suit, in spite of Chinese law's requirement that a court do so within seven days of the suit's filing, and this locks the fishermen out of the courthouse without even giving them the dignity of a perfunctory consideration." (Brackets in complaint.)
The fishermen seek damages for negligence, public and private nuisance, trespass, unjust enrichment and claims under the Alien Torts Claims Act.
They also want "costs to restore the fish stocks and the environment to its original unpolluted state," and want ConocoPhillips ordered to finance a comprehensive environmental test of the Bohai Sea.
The fishermen are represented by Thomas Bilek of Houston.