Few dare to give precise estimates of the damage caused to the already polluted sea, but nobody doubts its consequences will affect fish stocks, birds and the plankton. Large quantities of fish and close to 30,000 birds have already been found dead, and there are concerns over the fate of dolphins in the region.
Clean-up operations are underway, but the fuel oil is slowly sinking to the sea bed. When water temperatures increase in the summer, the oil could re-surface and reach popular Black Sea holiday resorts, according to Kiselez.
The Ukrainian side -- facing less oil damage -- has cleaned most of its coastline, but the same cannot be said of Russia, Kiselez said. "Ukrainian authorities are much more open to requests," the activist stressed.
Vladimir Tchouprov, Greenpeace Russia's energy unit head also said that Russian authorities are hindering their work. "We presented the regional authorities with a damage map which was refused. The police blocked our expedition and are stopping us from monitoring the situation," he told IPS.
Tchouprov warns against a premature end to the clean-up effort: "There are many sites full of oil," he said, "but authorities just don't want to continue working, there is no interest in completely finishing the works because media interest is declining."
There are 20 missing persons, three seamen were found dead after Ukrainian authorities rescued 43.
One of the ships, The Volganeft-139 -- a single-hulled tanker from the 1970s licensed only for river transport, and not intended for use on the open sea -- was carrying 4000 tons of fuel oil, up to half of which could have already spilled.
"The other vessel, Volganeft-123 -- according to the register it didn't exist actually -- so that ship was already outdated and had been taken off all the lists," said Igor Chestin, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia. "That vessel simply shouldn't have been in that area."
The Kovel and Nakhichevan ships -- containing 6,000-tons of sulphur -- also sank, though its harmful environmental consequences were initially considered limited.
The first inspection of the sulphur containers by divers concluded they were still sealed, but a subsequent expedition determined the containers are now cracking and almost 2,500-tons of sulphur have already leaked into the sea.
To facilitate the clean-up operation Ukraine and Russia have signed a protocol calling for a joint assessment of damage and adequate compensation.
Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine, has called for the formulation of a new agreement on safety in the strait to replace the obsolete bilateral accords which -- in his view -- cannot guarantee environmental safety.
Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's outgoing prime-minister, has suggested that the two countries should introduce international navigation rules for the Strait.
Following the calls, the maritime administrations of both countries have signed a temporary deal regulating navigation through the Kerch strait which states that all vessels must receive clearance and direction from the Kerch central traffic control service in Ukraine.
An underlying priority for the Ukrainian side is to determine the maritime border between itself and Russia. The blurry administrative border makes it difficult to regulate the movement of ships -- this may have contributed to the tragedy, according to Ukrainian officials.
Transhipment is common in the strait. River ships -- which cannot weather intense storms -- reload their cargoes into seagoing ships.
Many believe that ship owners avoid ports where they would be forced to pay port dues and face customs controls.
Former emergencies minister, Davyd Zhvaniya, pointed out that smuggling is a major reason for transhipment at sea during a televized debate on Ukrainian Channel 1+1.
Ukraine is pressing Russia to ensure that the owners of the Russian ships responsible for the spills pay compensation for the environmental damage caused.
But, Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian Federal Service for Regulation of the Use of Natural Resources, has accused the Ukrainian naval services of negligence for not issuing storm warnings in time.
The accusations were rebuffed by Mykola Rudkovskyy, Ukraine's Transport and Communications Minister, who insists Ukrainian maritime authorities issued several warnings before the storm which Russian ships ignored.
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Albion Monitor November
27, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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