Black Sea Disaster

While the Bay Area oil spill of about 65,000 gallons of bunker oil was contained late, it was contained; while oil hit the beaches, volunteers and paid workers were able to get at it in nice weather, stopping for lunches; while birds were covered in oil, dying and struggling not to die the numbers were in the hundreds.

In the Black Sea, matters are entirely different. Different enough, in years of neglect, greed and stupidity, in howling storms that are keeping people off the shore, that one environmentalist said “We could lose the Black Sea if we go on this way.”

Leading Russian environmentalists, meanwhile, said the oil spill was triggered by years of official negligence that allowed oil transport ships to use outdated and inadequate equipment.

“It’s a long-expected disaster,” environmentalist Sergei Golubchikov told journalists in Moscow Tuesday. “We could lose the Black Sea if we go on this way.

Russia has a lot riding on the health of the Black Sea: President Vladimir Putin has pledged to spend $12 billion on developing the port of Sochi as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Eleven ships sank or ran aground in Sunday’s gale, including the tanker that spilled the fuel and a freighter that carrying sulfur, officials said. The bodies of three crew members from the freighter have been found, and crews were searching for five missing crewmen, said Sergei Kozhemyaka, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

High winds have prevented salvage teams from launching an effort to sweep the oil off the water’s surface, officials said, allowing patches of the slick residue to drift to the seabed, where it could linger for years.

Yelena Vavila, an expert with the regional environmental monitoring agency, warned about “increased concentration of oil in the water for at least five years.”

The most important task now is to build a dam to prevent the slick from floating into the Sea of Azov, said Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian state environmental safety watchdog Rosprirodnadzor. “We have a real chance to save the ecosystem of the Sea of Azov,” he said.

However, Russia and Ukraine have a long-running argument over which country controls what parts of the waterway. Ukraine has objected in the past to Russian plans to build a similar dam, calling it an attempt to strengthen Moscow’s claim to a disputed island.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov visited the region Tuesday and said that most of the oil could be cleaned off the shoreline within three weeks and that all would be gone within 45 days.

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said he would meet with Zubkov and called for review of bilateral relations. “We definitely need to examine, or, perhaps, re-examine the treaty between Ukraine and Russia,” he told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Meanwhile, scores of birds — weighed down by thick coatings of the fuel oil — hopped weakly along the shore or perched helplessly in the sand. Workers with pitchforks and shovels collected vast clumps of oil mixed with sand, seaweed and dead birds.

Black Sea Death

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