By Chris Baldwin
NOVOROSSIISK, Russia, Nov 12 (Reuters) - Russian authorities launched a major rescue operation at the northern mouth of the Black Sea on Monday to save missing seamen and contain environmental damage after a storm sank at least four ships and split open a small oil tanker.
Three bodies were found ashore near the Tuzla Spit, a piece of land jutting out from the Russian coast towards the Ukrainian Crimea, Interfax news agency reported. Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said at least eight other sailors were missing.
"A border patrol discovered three persons in life vests grounded on the coastline near Tuzla Spit. They may have been crew members of the dry cargo ship Nakhichevan that sank in the port of Kavkaz," Interfax quoted a spokesman as saying.
Sunday’s storm broke in two a small Russian oil tanker, the Volgoneft-139, off the Ukrainian port of Kerch, spilling at least 1,300 tonnes of fuel oil in what a Russian official described as an "environmental disaster".
The same storm in narrow straits between the Black Sea and Azov Sea, also sank at least four freighters, three carrying sulphur and one with a cargo of scrap metal. The heavy seas also cracked the hull of another oil tanker, but the ship was afloat.
Russian officials said shipping in the area had been warned well in advance of heavy storms but it appeared some captains had chosen to ignore the advice and put to sea.
Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Russian Emergencies Ministry, said that six other ships had run aground, though they were not carrying oil.
He said 165 rescuers had already saved 35 crew members and were hunting for the other missing seamen.
Officials said that in the cold winter temperatures the fuel oil may sink to the bottom of the sea rather than float on the surface, making it harder to find and disperse.
Further down the Black Sea coast at the Russian port of Novorossiisk, two ships were visible aground.
The Georgian-registered Captain Ismael and the Turkish-flagged Ziya Koc were both stranded on the shoreline, not far from local hotels. The Ziya Koc was carrying a cargo of metal but the Captain Ismael was empty, local officials said.
The sunken oil tanker, Volganeft-139, had travelled from the Russian port of Azov and was anchored outside Kerch in Ukraine’s eastern Crimea to ride out the weather, when high waves broke its back at around 0445 (0145 GMT) on Sunday.
The 1978-built tanker, designed primarily for river and coastal service, was carrying 4,000 tonnes of fuel oil in total when it was hit by the storm, which has knocked out electricity supplies to much of the Crimea.
"This problem may take a few years to solve. Fuel oil is a heavy substance and it is now sinking to the seabed," Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia’s environment agency Rosprirodnadzor told state-run Vesti-24 television channel on Sunday. "This is a very serious environmental disaster."
SPILL EFFECTS NOT CLEAR
The likely effects of the spill were not immediately clear. A spill over 700 tonnes is considered large, but the biggest ones run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands.
The polluted area is at the heart of the migration route from central Siberia into the Black Sea of red-throated and black-throated Siberian diver birds.
Almost at the same time as the Volganeft-139 broke up, a freighter carrying 2,000 tonnes of sulphur sank off the port of Kavkaz in the Kerch Strait. Its crew of nine was rescued.
"We hope that in the water sulphur will not form any substances dangerous to humans," Mitvol said.
The hull of another oil tanker, Volganeft-123, cracked after being hit by high waves, but officials said early on Monday that its oil cargo was not leaking. (Additional reporting by Vera Kalian in Moscow; Writing by Michael Stott in Moscow; Editing by Dominic Evans)