Crimean storm causes environmental disaster

A storm in the Crimea has sunk four freighters and an oil tanker, spilling thousands of tonnes of fuel oil, sparking fears of a major environmental disaster.

The force of the storm was so great it snapped the tanker in half, with the crew being washed ashore in the stern section on Sunday several miles from the bow.

The wrecked Russian tanker, Volganeft-139, spilled up to 2,000 tonnes of fuel oil.

It had been anchored outside the Ukrainian port of Kerch in the Azov Sea, body of water attached to the Black Sea by environmentally sensitive straits when the accident occurred.

The crew had taken refuge in the virtually landlocked sea in the hope of avoiding the worst of the weather.

The ship was carrying 4,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil at when it was wrecked, and official estimates suggest up to half of this was spilled

Three of the other sunken ships were carrying cargoes of sulphur while the fourth was loaded with scrap metal.

Several sailors are missing and, by Monday, three bodies had been found.

The affected area is home to porpoises and forms part of the migration route used by water fowl escaping the harsh Siberian winter.

While the quantity of leaked oil is not of the magnitude of the notorious Exxon Valdez and Prestige spills, environmentalists have warned that the sensitive location could mean that the impact is extremely serious.

Fuel oil is heavier than water and will sink to the seabed, making the clean-up operation difficult.

Conservation NGO the WWF has said the full impact of the spill will not be known for some time, with the organisation’s programme director, Guillermo Castilleja saying: “The eco-system in this area has been degraded in the past by other spills and pollutants, and this latest spill will be a further setback..”

The organisation also said it hoped the incident would act as a catalyst for the adoption of tighter controls on oil operations in the region and greater co-operation between Russia and the Ukraine in responding to emergencies.

The storm also caused power cuts across vast swathes of the Crimea.

Sam Bond

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