Fierce winds Tuesday hampered crews struggling to clean up in the wake of a killer storm that sank at least 11 ships and split an oil tanker in two, spilling more than 500,000 gallons of petroleum into the waters near this southern Russia seaport.
Officials called the breakup of the tanker an environmental disaster for the region and warned that the 2,000 metric tons of spilled fuel oil, which has killed an estimated 30,000 birds, could cause long-lasting damage to marine life.
Leading Russian environmentalists said the oil spill was triggered by years of official negligence that allowed oil transport ships to use outdated and inadequate equipment.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.
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.
"Oil is falling on the sea floor, and that will result in an increased concentration of oil in the water for at least five years," said Yelena Vavila, an expert with the regional environmental monitoring agency.
Regional Gov. Alexander Tkachev told reporters that it was impossible to estimate the extent of the damage to the region's fisheries. "The damages are so great that it's hard to assess," he said Monday. "It can be equated with an ecological catastrophe."
Sunday's storm battered vessels plying the waters of the narrow Kerch Strait, connecting the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea. Russia ships almost one-quarter of its oil exports through Black Sea ports through the Bosporus and beyond.
Build dam to save sea?
Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of the Russian state environmental safety watchdog, said that the most important task now was to build a dam across the strait to prevent the slick from floating into the Sea of Azov. "We have a real chance to save the ecosystem of the Sea of Azov," he said.
That effort, however, could face diplomatic obstacles, because 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, claiming it was an attempt to strengthen Moscow's claim to a disputed island.
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov headed to the Black Sea region Tuesday, where he planned to assess the damage and work with Ukrainian officials on the cleanup effort.
Viktor Yanukovych, the prime minister of Ukraine, said he would meet with Zubkov and called for review of bilateral relations in the wake of the disaster. "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.
Some environmentalists call for tougher regulations that will punish oil companies polluting the sea.
"Russia needs a law that regulates sea pollution, and the Kerch strait should be declared an especially vulnerable sea zone," environmentalist Golubchikov said.
So far, the birds are the catastrophe's most obvious victims. Vasily Spiridonov, marine and coastal projects chief coordinator for the WWF-Russia, told journalists that "the damage to the seafloor ecosystem is harder to measure."
But at least one Russian scientist cautioned against overstating the effects of the spill, saying the flyways of swans and other migratory birds lie to the south of northern Black Sea coastline.
"The claims about the death of 30,000 birds are, most probably, an over-estimation," Boris Vasilyev, a biologist at the prestigious Moscow State University, told the state-run ITAR-Tass news agency.
Wild dogs attack oiled birds
In any case, birds were certainly the most immediate victims. A flock of about 1,000 rails, a species of wetland bird, were huddled on the beach in the town of Ilyich, unable to fly because their feathers were coated with oil. Some were unable to stand.
Cleanup workers said wild dogs had been taking advantage of the birds' condition to attack them. A Reuters reporter found a number of the birds on the beach with their heads torn off.
Oil poured into heavy seas Sunday when high winds and towering waves battered an oil tanker, the Volganeft-139, and broke it in two. About half of the Volganeft-139's cargo of 4,800 metric tons (1.3 million gallons) of fuel gushed into the water, officials estimated. The craft's 13 crew members were rescued.
As many as 10 other ships sank or ran aground in the gale, including the freighter Nakhichevan, which broke up and spilled a load of sulfur, officials said. The bodies of three of the Nakhichevan's crew members washed up on shore Monday.
Rescuers continued Tuesday to hunt for five missing crewmen, said Sergei Kozhemyaka, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. Two other freighters loaded with sulfur sank as well.
Russian and U.S. environmental officials said the spilled sulfur posed no immediate environmental threat.
Maxim Stepanenko, a regional prosecutor, told the Russian television channel Vesti 24 that captains had been warned Saturday about the stormy conditions. He said the Volganeft-139 — designed during Soviet times to transport oil on rivers — was not built to withstand a powerful storm.
Ukraine's Yanukovich noted the tanker had a single hull, instead of the two on newer ocean-going tankers.
"In the Bosporus Strait, 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.
Environmental campaign group Greenpeace said the oil spill revealed the shortcomings of shipping safety in the region.
"In Russia we do not have one hundred percent of our ships maintained in a suitable condition as is the practice in the West," Alexei Kiselyov, coordinator of Greenpeace Russia's anti-pollution campaigns, told Reuters. "In the last few days we have seen a very clear demonstration of that."
Sulfur also spilled
The Nakhichevan and the other freighter together were carrying about 7,150 tons of sulfur, which also spilled into the waters.
Russian environmental officials said the sulfur did not appear to pose any environmental danger. Jim Farr, a chemist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, compared the spill to dumping a load of sand in the water and smothering a reef, or covering a patch of grass with a blanket.
However, he said that it was difficult to know the long-term effects without better knowledge of the area’s depth and currents.