Jiang He  /  AP
In this photo released by Greenpeace, a firefighter submerged in thick oil during an attempt to fix an underwater pump is brought ashore by his colleagues in Dalian, China on Tuesday.
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updated 7/21/2010 4:02:17 PM ET 2010-07-21T20:02:17

China's largest reported oil spill emptied beaches along the Yellow Sea as its size doubled Wednesday, while cleanup efforts included straw mats and frazzled workers with little more than rubber gloves.

An official warned the spill posed a "severe threat" to sea life and water quality as China's latest environmental crisis spread off the shores of Dalian, once named China's most livable city.

One cleanup worker has drowned, his body coated in crude.

"I've been to a few bays today and discovered they were almost entirely covered with dark oil," said Zhong Yu with environmental group Greenpeace China, who spent the day on a boat inspecting the spill.

"The oil is half-solid and half liquid and is as sticky as asphalt," she told The Associated Press by telephone.

The oil had spread over 165 square miles (430 square kilometers) of water five days since a pipeline at the busy northeastern port exploded, hurting oil shipments from part of China's strategic oil reserves to the rest of the country. Shipments remained reduced Wednesday.

State media has said no more oil is leaking into the sea, but the total amount of oil spilled is not yet clear.

Greenpeace China released photos Wednesday of inky beaches and of straw mats about 2 square meters (21 square feet) in size scattered on the sea, meant to absorb the oil.

Fishing in the waters around Dalian has been banned through the end of August, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported.

"The oil spill will pose a severe threat to marine animals, and water quality, and the sea birds," Huang Yong, deputy bureau chief for the city's Maritime Safety Administration, told Dragon TV.

At least one person died during cleanup efforts. A 25-year-old firefighter, Zhang Liang, drowned Tuesday when a wave threw him from a vessel, Xinhua reported.

Officials, oil company workers and volunteers were turning out by the hundreds to clean blackened beaches.

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      Rescue in China

      Workers pull a struggling colleague to safety in the Chinese port of Dalian, Liaoning province.

"We don't have proper oil cleanup materials, so our workers are wearing rubber gloves and using chopsticks," an official with the Jinshitan Golden Beach Administration Committee told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper, in apparent exasperation.

"This kind of inefficiency means the oil will keep coming to shore. ... This stretch of oil is really difficult to clean up in the short term."

But 40 oil-skimming boats and about 800 fishing boats were also deployed to clean up the spill, and Xinhua said more than 15 kilometers (9 miles) of oil barriers had been set up to keep the slick from spreading.

China Central Television earlier reported an estimate of 1,500 tons of oil has spilled. That would amount roughly to 400,000 gallons (1,500,000 liters) — as compared with 94 million to 184 million gallons in the BP oil spill off the U.S. coast.

China's State Oceanic Administration released the latest size of the contaminated area in a statement Tuesday.

The cause of the explosion that started the spill was still not clear. The pipeline is owned by China National Petroleum Corp., Asia's biggest oil and gas producer by volume.

Friday's images of 100-foot-high (30-meter-high) flames at China's second largest port for crude oil imports drew the immediate attention of President Hu Jintao and other top leaders. Now the challenge is cleaning up the greasy plume.

"Our priority is to collect the spilled oil within five days to reduce the possibility of contaminating international waters," Dalian's vice mayor, Dai Yulin, told Xinhua on Tuesday.

But an official with the State Oceanic Administration has warned the spill will be difficult to clean up even in twice that amount of time.

Some locals said the area's economy was already hurting.

"Let's wait and see how well they deal with the oil until Sept. 1, if the oil can't be cleaned up by then, the seafood products will all be ruined," an unnamed fisherman told Dragon TV. "No one will buy them in the market because of the smell of the oil."  

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: China oil spill doubles in size

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  1. A worker helps clean the crude-polluted beach in Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning province on July 21. Nearly 1,000 boats are now working in the sea to control the oil spill caused by explosions on an oil dockyard which occurred on July 17. (Ai Liao / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. People's Liberation Army soldiers place protective booms to control the spread of leaked crude oil at a beach in Dalian, Liaoning province, China on Wednesday, July 21. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chinese firefighters work in heavy oil near the coast of Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning province on Tuesday, July 20. Crude oil started pouring into the Yellow Sea off a busy northeastern port after a pipeline exploded late last week, sparking a massive fire that burned for 15 hours. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rescuers help two workers, one of whom saved a struggling colleague from drowning, in the Chinese port of Dalian on July 20. The workers were caught in some of the 1,500 tons of crude which spilled into the sea following an attempt to fix an underwater pump. Chinese officials said a third of the oil had been collected and they expect to resume oil imports by the end of the week. (Jiang He / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Crude oil floats in the sea in Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning province on Sunday, July 18. (Zheng He / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A Chinese worker tries to soak up oil from a spill in the sea near Dalian in northeast China's Liaoning province on July 18. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Firefighters work to extinguish a fire in Dalian, Liaoning Province of China, on Saturday, July 17. (ChinaFotoPress / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Firefighters are silhouetted by flames towering from a pipeline explosion at a Chinese port in Dalian in northern China's Liaoning province on July 17. The oil pipeline at the busy Chinese port exploded, causing a massive fire that burned for 15 hours before being extinguished. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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