KIEV, Nov. 11 – A huge amount of fuel was spilled off the Ukrainian port of Kerch on Sunday after a severe storm broke a Russian oil tanker in two pieces, officials said.
At least three other ships, two carrying sulfur and one scrap metal, also sank in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov as the storm, the worst in a decade, continued to rage.
Ukrainian and Russian emergency teams and coast guards were put on high alert Sunday, with both countries sending boats and helicopters to rescue dozens of sailors. Eight sailors were reported as missing late Sunday, officials said.
A separate effort has been unfolding to try to collect the 1,200 metric tons of fuel oil that spilled from the tanker and now poses an environmental disaster. But the raging storm has been slowing the effort considerably.
“There are serious concerns the leak of fuel oil will continue,” Oleg Mitvol, the head of the Russian environmental agency, Rosprirodnadzor, told a Russian television Sunday night. “The Kerch Strait is a waterway for both Ukraine and Russia, so the countries must be seriously concerned about such massive-scale damage.”
The tanker, Volganeft-139, had apparently traveled from the Russian port of Azov and was anchored outside Kerch in Ukraine's eastern Crimea to weather the storm.
But the storm, sending waves as high as 5 meters, broke the ship in two, with its bow remaining anchored and tanker aft, and a crew of 13 drifting towards the coast.
The tanker, which was built in 1978 and designed mostly for inland and coastal service, was carrying a total of 4,000 metric tons of fuel oil when it was hit by the storm.
Due to its design, which keeps oil in separate sections within the tanker, only 1,200 metric tons of oil is thought to have leaked into the sea. A more accurate estimate will be done on Monday, when the storm is expected to ease, officials said.
But even in the best-case scenario, the clean-up operation will take “several months,” Mitvol said. Independent ecology experts said perhaps a year of well-coordinated efforts, worth up to $100 million, may be needed to fix the damage.
Meanwhile, almost at the same time as Volganeft-139 drama has been unfolding, a freighter carrying 2,000 metric tons of sulphur sank off the Russian port of Kavkaz in the Kerch Strait. Its crew of nine was rescued.
Several hours later, another freighter carrying sulphur sank off Kavkaz, Interfax news agency quoted the port administration as saying, adding three of its crew had been rescued by a Ukrainian ship. The fate of the other eight sailors was unclear.
The same storm also sank a freighter with scrap metal off Sevastopol in southern Crimea. (nr/ez)