Oil spill near Black Sea as storm sinks three ships

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Monday, November 12, 2007

The Black Sea, with the Straight of Kerch visible near the top right flowing into the Sea of Azov.

A fierce storm on Sunday resulted in massive 18-foot waves, which split a Russian oil tanker in two and sank two Russian freighters nearby. The tanker spilled at least 560,000 gallons of fuel into a strait which leads to the Black Sea, and officials say it may take years to clean up. The tankers sank in the Strait of Kerch, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov in the northeast. The two ships were carrying a total of around 7,150 tons of sulfur, according to Sergei Petrov, Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations regional spokesperson.

The tanker was carrying nearly 1.3 million gallons of fuel oil, and was stranded several miles from shore. Emergency workers were prevented from collecting the spilled oil immediately due to stormy weather; the head of the state environmental safety watchdog Rosprorodnadzor, Oleg Mitvol, said "there is serious concern that the spill will continue". Workers eventually managed to begin work on cleaning up the spill, an effort which may be long-term. Tar-like sands laden with oil and seaweed were piled on the shore, while oil-covered birds in slick-covered water tried to flap their wings. Regional coast guard officer Anatoly Yanhuck said once weather improves they will begin pumping oil from the tanker, then tow the ship to port.

Two fuel-loaded barges and Turkish freighter Ziya Kos also ran aground in the area, but there was no further environmental damage, said Petrov. Ten ships altogether were sunk or run aground in the area of the Black Sea near the Straight of Kerch and the Straight itself; a Russian freighter carrying metal was also reported as having sunk near the port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.

The Port of Sevastopol on a clear day in 2005.
Image: Vyacheslav Stepanyuchenko.

One of the sulfur-carrying freighters reported three crew members as drowned, and five more as missing, while two members of the sunk freighter carrying metal were reported as drowned and another remains missing. The oil tanker's 13 crew members were all rescued safely, and all members of the second freighter were also reported as safe.

Captains had been warned Saturday morning of the stormy conditions, regional prosecutor Maxim Stepanenko told Russia's Vesti 24. The oil tanker was not built to withstand fierce storms, having been designed to transport oil on rivers during Soviet times, he said.

Chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Service office of response and restoration, Jim Farr said the sulfur spill from the two freighters wouldn't create a "hazardous situation", a statement backed up by Alexei Zhukovin, expert with the Emergency Situations Ministry's branch in Southern Russia. Although on land sulfur is used as a fungicide, in a marine setting it wouldn't act as one, said Farr; instead a sulfur spill can be compared to dumping sand on a reef and smothering it, or placing a blanket on a bed of grass. Long-term effects are more difficult to speculate on, however, without better knowledge of the area and its currents. Oleg Mitvol said that although the sulfur spill doesn't present an environmental danger, the two freighters might also leak fuel oil from their tanks, adding to the pollution.

Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine all border on the Black Sea.

Sources

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