'Serious disaster' after massive oil spill in Black Sea

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The Independent Online

Rescuers recovered the bodies of three sailors from a Russian freighter that sank near the Black Sea in a fierce storm as officials assessed the damage from another vessel that spilled thousands of tons of oil in what could be the worst environmental disaster in the region in years.

Russian workers began what could be a long-term effort to clean up millions of gallons of fuel oil, shoveling tar-like, oil-laden sands and seaweed into piles on the shore as slick-covered waters lapped at their boots. Oil covered birds could be seen trying to swim flap their wings.

The dead sailors from the freighter Nakhichevan washed up near Tuzla on the western side of the Strait of Kerch, a narrow strait linking the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov. Emergency Situations spokesman Sergei Kozhemyaka said rescuers were looking for five others.

The Nakhichevan was one of two freighters that broke up as 18-foot (5.5-meter) waves and high winds battered ships throughout the region. As many as 10 ships sank or ran aground in the northern Black Sea region during the fierce storm, including the tanker, the Volganeft-139, loaded with nearly 4,800 metric tons (1.3 million gallons) of fuel oil. Nearly half that amount had spilled into the strait and had begun washing up on nearby shorelines.

The Russian tanker's 13 crew members were rescued, authorities said.

Officials said it could be the worst environmental disaster in the region in years.

Anatoly Yanhuck, a regional coast guard officer, said workers would begin pumping oil from the tanker once the weather improves, then tow the ship to port. Investigators would be looking at the actions of the ship's captain, but he said that the weather appeared to have been worse than forecast.

Nakhichevan and the other freighter together were carrying about 6,500 metric tons (7,150 U.S. tons) of sulfur, which also spilled into the waters.

Russian environmental officials said the sulfur did not appear to pose any environmental danger. Jim Farr, a chemist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, compared the spill to dumping a load of sand in the water and smothering a reef, or covering a patch of grass with a blanket.

However, he said that it was difficult to know the long-term effects without better knowledge of the area's depth and currents.

Vesti 24 television on Sunday reported the sinking of a Russian freighter carrying metal near the port of Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. Two members of its 16-man crew drowned and one was missing, it said.

Maxim Stepanenko, a regional prosecutor, told Vesti 24 that captains had been warned Saturday about the stormy conditions. He said the Volganeft-139 — designed during Soviet times to transport oil on rivers — was not built to withstand a fierce storm.