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New Oil Spill Reveals Gaps In International Laws (2002)

(ENS) -- A "colossal" ecological catastrophe is growing even larger in the Strait of Kerch where at least 10 oil tankers and cargo ships loaded with sulfur were wrecked in a fierce storm on November 11. At least six sailors died in the wreckage.

Now the storm in the Strait of Kerch is getting stronger, so it is not possible to stop the flow of oil into the sea and organize its collection and removal. Black oil stains are taking over the entire marine territory and the catastrophe is spreading. The oil is expected to reach the Sea of Azov within 24 hours, according to the Russian emergencies ministry.

The Kerch Strait divides Russia to the east from Ukraine to the west and also separates the shallow Sea of Azov to the north from the deeper Black Sea to the south.

"The fuel oil spill was much larger than was officially announced," said Andrey Rudomakha and Victoria Kucherenko of the NGO Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus.

The first disaster hit the tanker Volgoneft-139, which had 4,770 metric tons of fuel oil on board. It split in two spilling fuel oil from four of its eight tanks. The second, third, fifth and sixth tanks were empty when inspected.

So, they calculate, at least half of the fuel oil on board was spilled -- about 2,385 tons.

The official figure, given November 11 by the Russian Ministry for Emergencies, was a spill of at least 2,000 tons.

Greenpeace sent a team to the scene and they report that, "Kilometers of coast are soaked in oil, and more has sunk to the seabed. An estimated 30,000 birds have died. The full extent of the disaster has yet to be assessed."

The pollution has spread to the northern side of the Taman Peninsula on the coast of the Azov Sea. Tuzla Spit, the Chushka Spit -- on the side of the Strait of Kerch -- and the beaches near the villages of Ilyich and Priazovskii are completely covered in oil.

On the coast of the Sea of Azov oil has reached the Cape of Kammenyi. On the shore of the Black Sea, oil has reached the village of Volna on the southern part of the Taman Peninsula.

Today, environmentalists learned that the oil pollution has traveled as far as the village of Kuchugury. They say Aleksandr Komlevoi, a representative of the NGO "Saving Taman!," was there today.

The seashore at Kuchugury is severely polluted with lumps of congealed fuel oil. The sea was continuously dumping new pieces of fuel oil onto the shore and the air was filled with the persistent smell of oil, Komlevoi said. He saw about a dozen people conducting cleanup activities.

There also was a massive spill of fuel from the three freight ships loaded with sulfur -- the Volnogorsk, the Kovel, and the Nakhichevan -- which sunk off the southern edge of the Tuzla Spit. The thousands of tons of sulfur are lying at the bottom of the sea.

This pollution and the oil slick may spread across the entire southern shore of the Taman Peninsula and reach Anapa Resort.

Samples of sea water that were taken yesterday at the Kuban Estuary Station on Chushka Spit between the Port Kavkaz and the Ulyich Village showed 50 times the maximum permissible concentrations for petroleum products in sea water.

The pile-up occurred in the Strait of Kerch on the anchorage area No.450. It is located in the maritime administration of the Kerch Port's in Ukraine's area of responsibility, and also on the Taman Handling Complex located in the maritime administration of the Ports of Temryuk and Kavkaz in Russia's area of responsibility.

Reasons for the accident included stormy weather, the lack of technical preparedness of the ships to work in such weather conditions and the disdain of the ships' captains when they were warned of the storms.

Rudomakha and Kucherenko say the region is "exceptionally valuable and vulnerable."

The Strait of Kerch is a body of water of the highest fisheries category as it is the migration route for fish between the Azov and Black Seas, including many species that are included in the Red Book of the Russian Federation and Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Fish and protected dolphins have suffered colossal damage. Oiled birds from a wildlife preserve on the shore of the Azov Sea have been abandoned to their fate.

Rudomakha and Kucherenko say, "Tens of thousands of birds have already died as a result of oil pollution. And at least as many are covered with a layer of oil and are destined for death. There are no plans to save them."

"The roots of what happened lie with the fact that in 1999, in the Strait of Kerch at the Russian Port Kavkaz, the Taman Handling Complex -- a new floating oil-chemical port, was built, through which petroleum products, sulfur and fertilizers are transferred from small sized boats to those that hold many tons.

With its shallow water, high winds, lack of any kind of natural shelter for the boats, and the possibility of the rapid formation of water spouts, an accident was waiting to happen.

"Such an oil and chemical port should never have been created in the Strait of Kerch," say Rudomakha and Kucherenko.

The interests of private companies were considered to be more important than environmental protection, they say, so effective systems to liquidate oil spills were not created either in the Port Kavkaz or in the Kerch Port.

"The Port Kavkaz does not even have the ability to collect oil in the event of an oil spill, and currently, there is nowhere to put the spilled oil, which would be collected," the environmentalists say.

"And thus," say Rudomakha and Kucherenko, "the ancient land of Taman has gotten a full taste of what oil is. This is by no means economic prosperity, as many investors have promized. It is dead birds and fish, a polluted sea and beaches. The fuel oil left on the bottom of the sea will be long remembered, and will continue to poison the region's maritime ecosystem for many years."

"The catastrophe in the Strait of Kerch should stand as a lesson for the authorities in Russia. They are obligated to listen to the opinions of the local population and to public environmental organizations, who have tried to show them for the past 10 years that the Taman Peninsula is not a location for oil and chemical ports.

© 2007 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

Translation by Kate Watters of Crude Accountability

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Albion Monitor   November 15, 2007   (

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