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Russian oil spill caused by ‘greed’

Russia's worst-ever oil spill, after a tanker sank amid a storm in the Black Sea's narrow Kerch Strait, was caused by greed and carelessness, reports Fred Weir.

world Updated: Nov 13, 2007 23:23 IST
Fred Weir

Russia's worst-ever oil spill, after a tanker sank amid a storm in the Black Sea's narrow Kerch Strait, was caused by greed and carelessness, environmental experts say.

"It wasn't the storm, but the fact that the tanker was not seaworthy and the regulations not followed," which caused the Volganeft-139, a ship licensed only for river transport, to sink after spilling an estimated 2,000 tons of oil into the sea late on Sunday, says Vladimir Slivyak, director of Ecodefence, a Russian environmental watchdog.

"With oil prices at a peak just now, Russian industry is trying to export as much petroleum as possible, and they are not paying attention to safety rules," he says.

Long stretches of Russia's Black Sea coast are coated with a black coat of oil after the Volganeft-139 and four other ships sank amid gale-force winds and 18-foot high waves as they attempted to navigate the Kerch Strait, which separates the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov, in southern Russia.

Five sailors were confirmed dead by Tuesday, with 20 more missing. Over 30,000 sea birds were reported dying from contact with the oil slick, and experts say the region's delicate fisheries may take decades to recover from the disaster.

Two of the sunken vessels were carrying a combined 7,000 tons of sulphur, which some experts say could have a deadlier long-term impact on the region's ecosystem than the oil spill.

On Tuesday the storm intensified, interrupting the work of hundreds of emergency workers, who included Russian troops and local Cossacks.

"The damage is so huge it can hardly be evaluated." Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov told the independent Interfax agency. "It can be compared with an environmental catastrophe.

Russian media have focussed on the human errors that led to what may be the worst environmental calamity since the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986.

The region's weather service said the stricken ships' captains repeatedly ignored storm warnings and entered the strait against orders.

"Nobody thinks about safety in Russia," says Slivyak. "Everyone thinks about money."

The Volganeft-139, a single-hulled river tanker, should never have been used on the open sea, experts say.

"In the Borsphorous Straits it is prohibited to use tankers that don't have double hulls," said Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose country shares the Black Sea coast with Russia.

fweir@online.ru