Oil spill spells catastrophe for Russian coast

KAVKAZ PORT, Russia (Reuters) - Long stretches of Russia’s Black Sea coast face an ecological catastrophe, local authorities said on Monday, after a fierce storm broke up a tanker, disgorging hundreds of tons of oil on to the shore.

Three seamen were drowned. A search was under way for five others missing, though hopes of finding them alive were dwindling.

Spilt fuel oil coated birds in a thick black sludge along a vast expanse of coastline in the northern mouth of the Black Sea, near Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov to the scene to oversee the clean-up.

“The damage is so huge it can hardly be evaluated. It can be compared to an ecological catastrophe,” Interfax news agency quoted Alexander Tkachyov, governor of Russia’s Black Sea region of Krasnodar, as saying.

“Thirty thousand birds have died, and it’s just impossible to count the loss of fish,” he told regional officials.

The storm on Sunday sank the tanker and at least four freighters while crippling other vessels in the narrow Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and Azov Sea.

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Rescuers on Monday found the bodies of three sailors missing since the storm. Helicopters and rescue vessels searched for five seaman still missing, but with a new storm on its way, officials said hopes of finding them alive were dwindling.

Environmentalists -- backed by Ukraine’s Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich -- said the incident raised questions about safety standards for shipping in the region.

Russian officials said the captains of several vessels had put to sea despite storm warnings. The tanker that was the source of the spill was built in the 1970s, and was not designed for heavy seas, officials said.

At Novorossiisk, Russia’s No. 2 port for exports of oil and oil products, officials had ordered tankers not to dock because a new storm was on its way.

The worsening weather, forecast to last until Tuesday evening, was hampering rescue operations, said Anatoly Yanchuk, a rescue department chief at Russia’s Transport Ministry.

“We will continue efforts to find those five missing, but the chances of finding them are now smaller,” he told reporters in the port of Kavkaz overlooking the strait.

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The oil spill came from the Volgoneft-139, a small Russian tanker. Officials said it had released at least 1,300 tons of fuel oil into the sea, though environmental group Greenpeace said it estimated up to 2,000 tons were spilled.

At the coastal settlement of Ilyich, halfway between Kavkaz and Novorossiisk, about 100 workers were on the beach using shovels and a bulldozer to scrape globules of oil off the sand.

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“This oil came in last night, along a 13 km (8 miles) stretch,” said Alexander Mikhalkov, a clean-up crew foreman.

A flock of about 1,000 rails, a species of wetland bird, were huddled on the beach, unable to fly because their feathers were coated with oil. Some were unable to stand.

Ukraine’s prime minister urged a review of environmental safety in the Kerch Strait, a busy waterway which separates Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and southern Russia. He said currents were taking the slick away from Ukraine’s coastline.

“In the Borsphorous Straits, it’s not possible to use tankers which have no double hulls. How is the Kerch Strait different? It isn’t,” Yanukovich said at a news briefing.

WWF, the world’s largest conservation organization, said in a statement it hoped “the Black Sea catastrophe will lead Russia to adopt a law guaranteeing proper safety of oil operations at sea and on rivers”.

Additional reporting by Vera Kalian, Dmitry Madorsky and Natalya Zinets, writing by Christian Lowe and Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Richard Balmforth