On November 11 a powerful storm arose in the northeastern Black Sea. By the end of it, Russia and Ukraine faced serious environmental damage from an oil spill and a potentially acrimonious diplomatic situation.
According to Ukraine’s Emergency Situations Ministry, after the storm four ships had foundered, another six had run aground, and two tankers were damaged in the narrow Kerch Strait, at the entrance to the Sea of Azov between Russia and Ukraine. One of the damaged ships was the Volgoneft-139, which was carrying more than 4,000 tons of fuel oil. Smashed by 67 mph winds and 16-foot waves, the ship split in two, spilling more than half its cargo (Ukrains’ke Radio, November 13).
The only good news from the storm was that the ecological catastrophe could have been much worse. The majority of the nautical damage took place in the Kerch Strait, where, despite the storm alert, there were nearly 150 ships. Besides the Volgoneft-139, the dry cargo bulk carrier Volnogorsk sank with its cargo of about 2,600 tons of sulfur near Kerch port, while the Kovel freighter, also carrying sulfur, crashed into the sunken Volnogorsk and slid beneath the waves. The Georgian vessel Khach-izmail also sank. Another sulfur carrier, the Nakhichevan, wrecked. Groundings included the Ukrainian dry cargo vessel Vira Voloshyna, beached near Kapsel Bay, and the Turkish Ziya Kos and a Georgian ship carrying about 800 tons of metal, both of which ran aground close to the port of Novorossiysk. Completing the scene, the Dika barge, loaded with 4,149 tons of fuel oil, was beached on a sandbar at Tuzla, along with the Demetra barge, which was carrying 3,757 tons of fuel (Kommersant, November 12). In all, about 10 ships sank or ran aground and 20 sailors remain missing.
Black Sea neighbors were quick to assist, with the Romanian Navy’s Constanta Maritime Rescue Center director, Adrian Alexe, responding to a request from Russian naval authorities for the 100-ton capacity Gigant floating crane to assist commercial vessels sunk in the storm (Rompres, November 13).
The finger pointing has already started. Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev, said, “Some 30,000 birds have died and it’s not possible to count how many fish. The damage is so great that it’s hard to assess. It can be equated with an ecological catastrophe” (Interfax, November 13). The damages caused by the wrecked ships have been estimated at up to $163 million. Russian and Ukrainian tugs have hauled the stern of the Volgoneft-139 into Kavkaz, where an additional 933 tons of fuel oil were pumped out (Interfax-Ukraine, November 15). While clean-up crews are already attacking the oil drifting onto beaches, the authorities are nervously awaiting possible additional pollution from sulfur granules (Itar-Tass, November 15).
A Russian-Ukrainian intergovernmental committee began meeting on November 15 in Kerch to discuss the progress of search-and-rescue and cleanup operations. Deputy Transport Minister Boris Korol heads the Russian delegation, while participating Ukrainians include officials from the Emergencies Ministry, Ministry of Natural Resources, and the Foreign Ministry. Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications Vladimir Korniyenko heads the Ukrainian team (Itar-Tass, November 15).
The catastrophe has already wreaked havoc on the Sea of Azov’s commercial fish stocks, including gobies and Azov anchovies, while World Wildlife Fund officials remain concerned about the fate of dolphins located around the Kerch Strait; two dead dolphins have already washed ashore.
The incident has caused additional friction between Russia and Ukraine, as the Kerch strait passage remains poorly delineated 16 years after the collapse of the USSR. Ukraine insists on dividing the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait along the conventional Soviet Union border that passed through two midpoints of the coast of the Kerch Strait and the Taganrog Bay, while Russia insists on an equal delimitation of the sea area.
The ultimate diplomatic wrangle may occur further to the south, however, as Turkey has insisted for years that unrestricted tanker traffic through the Turkish Straits is an environmental hazard. In 2006 more than 36,000 vessels transited the Turkish Straits, with tankers carrying over 140 million tons of oil under treaty rights guaranteed by the 1936 Montreaux Convention, despite constant Turkish warnings that such constant passages, working out to a tanker every 15 minutes, were a prelude to disaster.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said that the government is now studying the possibility of limiting tanker passages through the Kerch Strait and is consulting with maritime specialists. They are particularly interested in Turkey’s experience with the Bosporus and Dardanelles channels. If there is any good news for Moscow, its prime oil export facility at Novorossiysk is south of the straits and Kyiv currently does not plan to claim compensation from Russia for ecological damage (Rosbalt, November 12). The damage from last week’s storm, however, seems destined shortly to move from the environmental to the diplomatic sphere.