updated 12/25/2007 9:08:07 AM ET 2007-12-25T14:08:07

Fourteen sailors aboard a ship carrying nitric acid were missing Tuesday after their vessel was thought to have sunk in South Korea’s southern waters. One survivor was taken to a hospital.

The 1,323-ton ship was carrying 2,000 tons of nitric acid — a highly corrosive chemical used to clean metals — when it went missing.

Choi Eun-ju, a regional Coast Guard officer, said because nitric acid easily dilutes it is unlikely to pose a threat to the ocean or marine life if the ship sank.

South Korea’s Coast Guard and navy started searching for the ship after it sent out a distress signal off Yeosu, 283 miles south of Seoul, early Tuesday, said spokesman Eum Seung-ye. It was sailing to Taiwan after leaving the southern port city of Gwangyang on Monday night.

One sailor — identified as a 28-year-old Burmese — was found floating unconscious at sea hours later, but the other 14 crew members — 12 South Koreans and two from Myanmar — were still missing, Eum said.

The news comes as South Korea battles to contain the nation’s worst-ever oil spill, which has blackened beaches and jeopardized the ecosystem along the country’s west coast. A wayward barge hit a supertanker on Dec. 7 causing the tanker to leak 78,920 barrels of oil.

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