Kerch Strait storm tragedy and oil spill

Feature story - November 14, 2007
Our team on the ground reports that mitigation efforts were severely hampered due to more bad weather. Kilometres of coast are soaked in oil, and more has sunk to the seabed. An estimated 30,000 birds have died. The full extent of the disaster has yet to be assessed.

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.

Report from the scene

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.

The danger

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 and reproduction.

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 Sound.

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.  

Longer term

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 here, here and here.)

One solution is to reduce our dependence on polluting energy sources - like oil, coal and nuclear.  Another is to declare certain areas marine reserves - protect them from extractive uses like fishing and oil drilling, and prevent tankers from entering the most sensitive areas.  

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