Black Sea Oil Spill Calmer Seas Allow Shipwreck Rescue Efforts

Rescue operations have begun after four ships and an oil tanker sank in a storm near the Black Sea on Sunday. At least eight men are still missing and an environmental disaster seems inevitable.

Rescue operations have begun after a storm sank at least four freighters and a small oil tanker on Sunday on the Sea of Avoz, near the Black Sea. By Monday morning the northern mouth of the Black Sea was finally calm enough for rescue helicopters to take off and begin their search.

While over 20 seamen have been rescued, Russia's Emergency Ministry reported that at least eight are still missing.

The Volganeft-139 oil tanker was at anchor off the Ukranian port of Kerch when winds of 108 km/h (67 mph) and waves reaching 5 meters (16 feet), sent it to the depths of the Kerch Strait on Sunday. Within a few hours, the tanker's 13-member crew had been rescued.

On Monday morning rescuers recovered three bodies from another shipwreck near the Tuzla Spit, a piece of land which juts out of the Russian coast toward the Ukrainian Crimea.

An environmental catastrophe seems unavoidable. Up to 1,300 metric tons of fuel oil have leaked into the Kerch Strait which passes between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. At least two of the other ships that sank were transporting potentially hazardous cargo, including 2,000 tons of sulphur. The third was carrying scrap metal. And a second oil tanker, while still afloat, has developed cracks in its hull.

Russian environmentalist Vladimir Sivyak told the BBC that the sinking of the Volganeft-139 alone was a "very serious environmental disaster." He added that the heavy oil which has already sunk into the seabed will take years to clean up. According to a local prosecutor, the Volganeft-139 was designed in the Soviet era for transport on rivers and was not built to sustain heavy weather.

The shore near the port of Kavkaz is already showing signs of things to come. Large oil puddles are floating on the surface and birds are covered in the slick. The area lies on the migration route of red- and black-throated Siberian diver birds, traveling between central Siberia and the Black Sea.

The disaster, however, pales in comparison with the 64,000 ton oil tanker that sank off the coast of Spain in 2002, which caused extensive damage to French, Spanish and Portugese beaches in the region.


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