Japan Shows How Fast It Can Clean an Oil Spill

Shoji Matsumoto has survived typhoons and several accidents in his 50-year fishing career in Tokyo Bay.

But he never before faced a large-scale oil spill like the one last Wednesday when a supertanker ran aground off Yokohama, 20 miles south of Tokyo.

"I was just stunned," says the weathered-face fisherman who heads the fishing union in Funabashi, about 20 miles east of Tokyo. "We had no way of knowing how serious it was. So, we decided to join a cleanup operation."

Fiercely criticized for its slow response during an earlier spill this year, the government swung into action for this spill, mobilizing quickly to contain the slick in one of Japan's most crowded urban regions.

Some 300 Coast Guard and Navy ships, along with dozens of private fishing boats and three US Navy vessels, helped in the clean-up. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto called the incident a "national emergency."

A day after the spill, the government said that about 400,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from the Diamond Grace, just 1/10th the volume first announced. But many experts disagreed with the estimate, arguing the estimate was "too little."

The earlier spill happened in January in Fukui, when a Russian tanker sank, spilling about 1.2 million gallons of fuel oil and fouling hundreds of miles of shoreline. In 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled about 11 million gallons off Alaska.

"This time they apparently wanted to show that they learned something from the past and they could respond to a crisis quickly," Mr. Matsumoto says.

"The Japanese tend not to take an initiative as an individual. But if there is an appropriate order from the top, as a group they start working like a fireball," says Teiichi Aoyama, director of the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in Tokyo who helped oversee the oil cleanup in Kuwait after the Gulf War.

A Maritime Safety Agency spokesman acknowledges that the agency "has learned lessons." Within 12 hours after the spill, it called up more than 300 ships, including tugs, fishing boats, and cleanup vessels.

Four-day cleanup

It took only four days to complete most of the cleanup operation, compared with four months for the Fukui spill. An initial government estimate said the cost of the spill could reach $190 million, NHK television reported.

As Japan has become one of the most industrialized nations, more large ships and supertankers stop at its major ports. Japan depends on imports for almost 100 percent of the oil it uses. According to Mr. Aoyama, every day nearly 700 ships, including more than 100 tankers, go in and out of Tokyo Bay.

On Wednesday, the Japanese-owned tanker was carrying nearly 76 million gallons of light crude oil to a refinery in Kawasaki, on the west side of the bay.

Matsumoto and other fishermen in Funabashi say that companies importing oil should have more cleanup vessels. "We are the ones who are cleaning up the messes they leave," says a fuming fisherman.

Despite the government's announcement Friday that the cleanup operation was almost completed, more than 200 fishing boats were still at the site Saturday painstakingly scooping up the slick with buckets, barrels, and absorbent mats.

Environmental backwash

But Matsumoto is concerned that the trouble is not over yet and that environmental and economic damage still looms over the bay where the annual fish catch is worth nearly $300 million. "As long as consumers remember this incident, fish might not sell well," he says.

Also chemical dissolving agents used in the aftermath of the spill could pose a threat to the environment.

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