Update on Black Sea Oil Spill

On Sunday, November 11, at least 2,000 metric tons of fuel oil spilled into the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. The spill occurred when the 1978-built, Russian oil tanker Volganeft-139 split in two during a severe storm in the area. The 13 members of the tanker's crew, who drifted on the vessel's stern section for hours, were all eventually rescued by Russian Emergency Ministry officials.

Although the tanker, which had left the Port of Azov, Russia carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel oil, had anchored outside Kerch, Ukraine to wait for the storm to pass, very high waves caused a split in the ship. The storm also wreaked havoc on many other vessels. According to RIA Novosti, the official Russian news agency, "The November 11 storm in the Kerch Strait [also] killed at least six sailors [and] sank four ships." Moreover, the four dry-cargo vessels that sank had sulfur on board -- a total of around 7,000 metric tons combined. However, the sulfur is "currently sealed in containers," according to a November 16 RIA Novosti article, but the Ukrainian Environmental Protection Ministry later stated that the sulfur is apparently leaking from at least one of ships.

Cleanup crews from many different agencies began to mobilize soon after the oil spill was reported, but the severe weather kept activities at a minimum until Wednesday, November 14. According to RIA Novosti, the Russian Weather Service tested the Kerch Strait and found 2.5 milligrams of oil per liter of water, which is "fifty times above [the] maximum acceptable levels." As of November 21, "The Russian emergencies service regional press center said that about 2,000 tons of oil product waste had been removed from the coastline in the past 24 hours, bringing the total amount to approximately 17,500 tons. The clean up operation of the coastline is continuing, although ongoing storms have caused some recontamination. According to the ministry, one kg of fuel oil turns into 200 kg of oil product waste after mixing with sand, algae and litter."

Reportedly, about 30,000 birds and 9,000 fish have already been killed by the pollution. In fact, according to the Russian Bird Conservation Union quoted in a November 15 RIA Novosti article, only one out of every 30-40 birds is found alive, but "without any chance of surviving." Apparently, part of the oil-affected area is an "important zone for 50,000 migrating birds." Additionally, "up to 10 species of endangered birds can be spotted there at different times of the year."

The Russian agricultural watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor released a statement on Monday, November 19, which asserted, "Preliminary damage to fish stock amounts to 3.96 billion rubles [some $162 million]" in the Kerch Strait. Rosselkhoznadzor also stated that hunting losses in the area would amount to 6.084 million rubles (about $250,000). The total damages in the area, according to Russia's Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev as cited by RIA Novosti on November 21, are now estimated at 6.5 billion rubles ($265 million).

The Ukrainian Government is also participating in the cleanup efforts. On the day of the disaster, President Victor Yushchenko asked Prime Minister Victor Yanukovych to "take urgent measures to tackle the aftermath" of the storm. A Ukrainian Government press release describes some the actions taken by the country since the president's request: "A consolidated military unit of a mechanized battalion of the Coast Defense separate brigade of the Ukrainian Naval Forces was sent to the Tuzla Spit to mitigate the consequences of the Volga-Neft-139 tanker wreck. Furthermore, mobile groups were established in all units of the Ukrainian Coast Defense able to move to particular areas and provide help for Crimean residents. Ukrainian rescue teams has been keeping on searching for 15 missing sailors of the Georgian dry cargo ship 'Khash-Izmail' and 5 seamen of the Russian dry cargo ship 'Nakhichevan.'"

Regarding the oil pollution, a November 15 Ukrainian press release states, "Experts do not rule out progressive ecological aftereffects of the accident." Additionally, two days after the oil spill, and perhaps partially because of it, the Ukrainian Interdistrict Environmental Prosecutor's Office instituted "criminal proceedings upon sea pollution." Furthermore, per RIA Novosti, the Transport Ministry announced a ban on Project 576 and Project 2188 river-class vessels from sailing into seas until the "incidents with the Russian ships in the Kerch Strait . . . are investigated." Moreover, vessels older than 25 years will be inspected to make sure that they meet all safety requirements.

Since then, the Ukrainian Prime Minister urged an "independent probe into the Black Sea ecological disaster" on Wednesday, November 21. He also stated "that a group of 20 Russian and Ukrainian environmental experts was working alongside a European Union mission in the Strait. He also said the group had requested help from Norway, which reportedly has a ship capable of lifting oil from the seabed."

See photos of the oil spill here.

Sea the RIA Novosti Black Sea oil spill page here for the latest news and updates on the disaster.