Russian authorities on Monday launched a major rescue operation at the northern mouth of the Black Sea to save missing seamen and contain environmental damage after a storm sank up to 10 ships and split open a small oil tanker.
The Volganeft-139, anchored outside the Ukrainian port of Kerch, spilled at least 1,300 tons of fuel oil (364,000 gallons) after high waves broke it in two Sunday morning.
Birds seeking shelter on the shore near the centre of the storm were covered in a treacly mixture of oil and seaweed in the region's worst environmental disaster in years.
The spill raised questions about maritime safety in the Kerch Strait, a busy waterway that separates Ukraine and Russia.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich said that at the moment the slick was moving away from Ukraine, but measures should be taken to prevent future disasters.
"In the Borsphorous Straits, it's not possible to use tankers which have no double hulls. How is the Kerch Strait different? It isn't," he said at a news briefing in Kiev.
The 18-foot waves also sank at least four freighters in the nearby Strait of Kerch, a narrow waterway linking the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Azov to the northeast. Two of them were carrying a combined cargo of 7,150 tons of sulfur. Official and expert opinions about the environmental impact of sulfur vary, but Sergei Baranovsky, president of the Green Cross environmental group, contended that sulfur could be potentially even more hazardous to nature than the fuel oil.
Maxim Stepanenko, a regional prosecutor, told Vesti 24 that captains had been warned Saturday about the stormy conditions. He said the sunken oil tanker — designed during Soviet times to transport oil on rivers — was not built to withstand a fierce storm.
The vessel was carrying 4,000 tons of fuel oil when it was hit, and officials were concerned that the spill would continue even as cleanup efforts were already under way.
At the coastal settlement of Ilyich, halfway between Kavkaz and Novorossiisk, about 100 workers were on the beach using shovels and a bulldozer to scrape globules of oil off the sand.
"This oil came in last night, along a 13-km [8 mile] stretch," said Alexander Mikhalkov, a cleanup crew foreman.
A flock of about 1,000 rails, a species of wetland bird, were huddled on the beach, unable to fly because their feathers were coated with oil. Some were unable to stand.
The polluted area is at the heart of the migration route from central Siberia into the Black Sea of red-throated and black-throated Siberian diver birds. Officials said that in the cold winter temperatures the fuel oil may sink to the bottom of the sea rather than float on the surface, making it harder to find and disperse.
"This problem may take a few years to solve. Fuel oil is a heavy substance and it is now sinking to the seabed," Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia's environment agency Rosprirodnadzor told state-run Vesti-24 television channel on Sunday. "This is a very serious environmental disaster."
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace said the oil spill revealed the shortcomings of shipping safety in the region.
"In Russia we do not have 100 percent of our ships maintained in a suitable condition as is the practice in the West," said Alexei Kiselyov, coordinator of Greenpeace Russia's antipollution campaigns.
In total, as many as 10 ships ran aground in the area. Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Russian Emergencies Ministry, said 165 rescuers had already saved 35 crew members and were hunting for five other missing seamen.