Guilt for the environmental catastrophe in the Strait of Kerch lies with the authorities in Russia and Ukraine, as well as with the companies transporting dangerous cargo.
On November 11, 2007 in the Strait of Kerch on the anchorage area No.450, located in the maritime administration of the Kerch Port’s (Ukraine) area of responsibility, and also on the Taman Handling Complex located in the maritime administration of the Ports of Temriuk and Kavkaz (Russia) area of responsibility, a massive shipwreck occurred, involving dangerous cargo. The reasons for the accident included stormy weather, the lack of technical preparedness of the ships to work in such weather conditions and the disdain of the ships’ captains when they were warned of the storms.
The first catastrophe befell the tanker “Volgoneft-139” at the anchorage area No.450, which had 4.77 tons of fuel oil on board. It literally split in two. Then, within the span of two hours, one after the other, three ships loaded with sulfur sank: “Volnogorsk,” which had more than 2.6 tons of sulfur on board; “Nakhichevan,” with two thousand tons of sulfur; and “Kovel,” with 2.1 thousand tons of sulfur.
In addition, the Tanker “Volganeft-123” sustained damage, and the barges “Dika” and “Dimetra,” which were carrying fuel oil and were not self-propelled, were wrecked by their anchors. Fortunately, these accidents, according to the most current information, did not lead to oil spills.
A colossal environmental catastrophe has ensued. A significant part of the shoreline of the Taman Peninsula is immersed in petroleum products. The Tuzla Spit, the Chushka Spit—on the side of the Strait of Kerch—and the beaches near the villages of Ilyich and Priazovskii are completely covered in oil (see the photograph in the attachment). On the coast of the Sea of Azov oil has reached the Cape of Kammenyi. On the shore of the Black Sea oil has reached the village of Volna on the southern part of the Taman Peninsula.
The critical nature of the catastrophic situation is increased by the fact that the region suffering is exceptionally valuable and vulnerable from the ecological perspective. The Strait of Kerch is a body of water of the highest fisheries category as it is the migration route for fish between the Azov and Black Seas, including many species that are included in the Red Book of the Russian Federation and Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As a result of the oil pollution in the sea, fish species have suffered colossal damage. Dophins, which are also protected in accordance with Russian and International Red Books, also live in the polluted expanse of water. The Taman-Zaporozhie Wildlife Preserve, which was created in 1967, is also adjacent to the Strait of Kerch, and its natural complexes have also suffered greatly. The entire Chushka Spit, the whole western bank and southern end of which are covered with oil, are part of this protected area, which was designated a specially protected territory of the shores of the Black and Azov Seas by the government of the Russian Federation in 1996, a standing which has federal significance. The Wildlife Preserve was created, first and foremost, to protect birds. Tens of thousands of birds have already died as a result of oil pollution. And at least as many are covered with a layer of oil and are destined for death. There are no plans to save them.
Analyzing the reasons for what has happened, the representatives of the authorities of Russia and Ukraine do not speak about the main reasons for the catastrophe, which lie not with the surface of the force majeur of the weather conditions and the mistakes of the ship captains. For these reasons are their own decisions.
The roots of what happened lie with the fact that in 1999, in the Strait of Kerch at the Russian Port Kavkaz, the Taman Handling Complex in fact a new “floating” oil-chemical port, was built, through which petroleum products, sulfur and fertilizers are transferred from small sized boats to those that hold many tons. The Ukrainian Port of Kerch also began additional commercial transport at the anchorage areas No.450 in 2001. As a result, a large number of ships with dangerous cargo are always in the commercial lanes of the Strait of Kerch. Thus, because of the extremely difficult conditions for navigation in the Strait of Kerch, such as shallow water, high winds (storm winds with a speed greater than 15 meters/second are noted in the region on an average of 28 percent of the days of the year), a lack of any kind of natural shelter for the boats, the possibility of the rapid formation of water spouts, an accident was bound to happen sooner or later. Such an oil and chemical port should never have been created in the Strait of Kerch.
The motivation for such a decision was the greater economic benefit from transport of such dangerous cargo. Environmental risks accompanying the commercial transfer of such dangerous cargo through the Strait of Kerch were considered secondary. The interests of private companies interested in transferring dangerous cargo for state organs were considered to be more important than environmental protection.
Therefore, effective systems to liquidate oil spills were not created either in the Port Kavkaz or in the Kerch Port. These ports were not equipped with the necessary technical equipment to collect spilled oil. The Port Kavkaz does not even have the ability to collect oil in the event of an oil spill, and currently, there is nowhere to put the spilled oil, which will be collected.
The authorities and the companies are also guilty because ships were used for transport of dangerous cargo in the Strait of Kerch, which were not technically suited for use in difficult storm conditions. If they had not used them, the hull of the Tanker “Volgoneft-139” would not have split in two.
The enormous oil pollution in the sea, is, without a doubt, the most serious consequence of maritime activity that has occurred in the Strait of Kerch. But the seven thousand tons of sulfur that are now lying on the floor of the strait also promise nothing good. Further more, this sulfur is not in containers, as officials are stating. It is lying in piles in the holds of the sunken ships.
Because the storm in the Strait of Kerch is getting stronger, there is no possibility to stop the flow of oil in the sea and organize its collection and removal. The black oil stains are taking over the entire marine territory and the catastrophe is becoming bigger and bigger.
And thus, the ancient land of Taman has gotten a full taste of what oil is. This is by no means economic prosperity, as many investors have promised. It is dead birds and fish, a polluted sea and beaches. The fuel oil left on the bottom of the sea will be long remembered, and will continue to poison the region’s maritime ecosystem for many years.
The catastrophe in the Strait of Kerch should stand as a lesson for the authorities in Russia. They are obligated to listen to the opinions of the local population and to public environmental organizations, who have tried to show them for the past ten years that the Taman Peninsula is not a location for oil and chemical ports.
(Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus)
Translated by Kate WATTERS
Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus
November 12, 2007