Report from the scene
Oil soaked bird.
After last weekend's storm in the Black Sea, which sunk and damaged several ships, including oil tankers - approximately 2 thousand tonnes of heavy oil spilled into the sea.
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 heavy 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.
So far, a 30km length of shoreline appears to have been polluted
with oil. Not all of the oil has yet come ashore.
The sunken tanker, Volganeft-139, had traveled 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, media reported.
The 1978-built tanker, designed primarily for inland 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 Crimea.
Oil spills have an immediate and obvious impact on animals which
use the surface of the sea such as birds, seals and dolphins; birds
in particular are among the most obvious and serious victims.
Oil is especially dangerous for marine fauna - damaging
respiratory organs, poisoning through ingestion and robbing fur and
feathers of insulating and buoyancy properties. It can contaminate
gills of fish, which leads to suffocation. Bottom pollution
destroys spawning grounds and consequently hinders fish spawning
As the migratory season is now ongoing it is particularly
sensitive to the migratory birds in the area. Once the oil is on
the coast then there are impacts on the coastal and shoreline
marine communities and any possible shallow water nursery areas.
Experience from other oil spills from around the world
illustrates that impacts can be long term dependent on the type of
oil, the techniques used for mitigation, the type of ecosystem
impacted. One of the most studied oil spills was that from the
Exxon Valdez which ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska in
March 1989. Some of the oil from that spill can still be found
over 15 years later on some beaches in the Prince William
After a spill
When oil enters the sea, part of it evaporates (light
fractions), especially during hot weather. Part of it sinks (heavy
fractions) and the rest spreads over water surface. The light and
heavy fractions cannot be dealt with.
Booms are commonly employed to prevent oil from spreading over
the sea surface of affected areas. Skimmers are then used to suck
up the oil which is pumps into a receiving tank. In this case, poor
weather conditions made these techniques ineffective. Even in
ideal conditions, with equipment and experts deployed immediately,
no more than 15-20 per cent of the oil spilled can usually be
recovered in this way.
Once onshore, various mechanical removal techniques are
involved. This varies from washing rocks, scraping rocks, removing
surface sediment and, for some shores, water flushing. But some
cleaning techniques can also lead to damage. In highly sensitive
areas, vigorous clean-up techniques can exacerbate damage.
Essentially the techniques deployed depend on the type of shoreline
(rock, shingle, sand, mud, coral, mangrove, estuary), and the type
and consistency of the oil.
Our small team on the ground will continue to monitor the
situation. As an organization, we have the logistical capacity to
bear witness and push for swift action, but don't have the manpower
or expertise to do large-scale mitigation work.
There are some obvious safety improvements that should be made
in the short term: Clean up should continue as much as technically
feasible; New rules and regulations should be put in place; Tankers
intended for inland navigation should not be used for marine
transport; And anyone at fault for this spill should be held
accountable. However, the reality is that oil spills will keep
happening as long as we have oil tankers. (Some past examples
One solution is to reduce our dependence on polluting energy
sources - like oil, coal and nuclear. Another is to declare
marine reserves - protect them from extractive uses like
fishing and oil drilling, and prevent tankers from entering the
most sensitive areas.
Marine reserves now
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