Japanese unable to stop massive oil slick heading for coast

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The Independent Online
Associated Press

Tokyo - Gale-force winds and high waves kept Japanese clean-up ships away yesterday as a major oil spill from a sunken Russian tanker blew closer to the coast of Japan.

Late yesterday, the eastern tip of the 950,000-gallon spill was about 14 miles from the city of Fukui, 190 miles west of Tokyo. Earlier it had been reported 25 miles away in the Sea of Japan. But, for much of the day, the gale blew the oil east-northeast against the current off the Noto Peninsula, at an average of about one mile per hour.

Depending on shifts in wind and current, the slick could reach coastal fisheries and the shoreline by tomorrow or Thursday, said Shinji Sato, a regional spokesman for the Maritime Safety Agency.

The tanker Nakhodka, bound for Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, was carrying about 5 million gallons of fuel oil when it broke in two last Thursday, about 90 miles off Japan's western coast.

The size of the spill so far is a fraction of the 11 million gallon spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Damages totalling some pounds 30m were paid in that case.

Rough weather continued last night, but was expected to moderate tomorrow. The coastguard said oil may remain in the bow section of the ship, which was floating at the eastern edge of the slick near Fukui, but most of it went down with the other portion. The captain of the tanker was still missing but the other 31 crew members were rescued unhurt. The cause of the accident remains unclear.

The sinking has exacerbated an energy crisis in the Russian Far East. With existing fuel stocks projected to run out next Sunday, regional officials imposed fuel conservation measures on Saturday, the Interfax news agency reported.

It said that the main town on the Kamchatka Peninsula, Petropavlovsk- Kamchatsky, would have six hours of electricity cuts a day to save power, and the surrounding regions would also be affected. Russia's Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, pledged yesterday to keep heat and electricity from running out entirely in the fuel-starved region.

The spill was the second largest from a tanker off Japan since the Second World War, according to coastguard records. The largest occurred near the port of Niigata, 160 miles north-west of Tokyo, on 30 November 1971, when nearly 2 million gallons of oil was spilled.