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Lawyer: Conoco should face criminal charges

By Wang Qian  (China Daily)

08:38, September 07, 2011

BEIJING - Legal experts have suggested China's maritime authorities file a criminal case against ConocoPhillips China, the operator of the two leaking platforms in Northeast China's Bohai Bay.

The United States energy company could face charges over severe environmental pollution, causing a major accident and illegal mining, Jia Fangyi, an attorney at the Beijing-based Great Wall Law Firm, said on Tuesday.

Jia wrote to the State Oceanic Administration on Monday to suggest the authority, as the direct victim, files a criminal lawsuit against ConocoPhillips. He has so far received no response.

According to China's Criminal Law, if a manmade error causes a loss of 300,000 yuan ($47,000) or casualties and the operator has a negative attitude before and after the accident, charges can be brought on the grounds of severe environmental pollution.

The administration said in a recent investigation report that the leak was caused by human error.

"As well as 5,500 square kilometers of seawater being polluted, the economic loss for the fishery industry reportedly surpassed 1 billion yuan, far more than 300,000 yuan," Jia said.

Yang Jizhen, chairman of Laoting Fisheries Association in Hebei province, said on Tuesday that fishermen in his county face total losses of at least 330 million yuan.

In addition to the huge financial impact, Jia said the leak is still ongoing after three months. He also highlighted the fact ConocoPhillips hid the problem from the public for a whole month after the first spill was detected on June 4, suggesting the company has an irresponsible attitude.

Although ConocoPhillips insists no impact has been detected in the coastal areas, lawyers and authorities are busy trying to prove the link between the leak and reports of dead scallops and shrimp.

An insider on the State Oceanic Administration's legal consultancy team told China Daily that sufficient sample testing has been done in preparation for a civil lawsuit to claim environmental and economic compensation.

Some law experts say that if the authority files the suit, a major breakthrough will be achieved in the three-month incident.

Jia said he believes the move will ring alarm bells for foreign companies in China to obey China's laws and raise environmental protection awareness.

"Not only the State Oceanic Administration, but also the departments of public security and procuratorate should launch a joint investigation into the incident," said Zhou Ke, a law professor at Renmin University of China.

He said the crime of severe environmental pollution can result in a maximum sentence of seven years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Last Friday, maritime authorities ordered a full suspension of all oil production by ConocoPhillips China at Penglai 19-3, the largest offshore oilfield in China, after the company failed to meet the Aug 31 deadline to seal and clean up the spills.

China National Offshore Oil Corp, a partner in the venture, said the shutdown on Sunday will cause it to lose 62,000 barrels a day.

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