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by Jeff Durbin


Heavy fuel oil from a leaking Russian tanker that sank on January 2 has now reached nine prefectures on the Sea of Japan coast. Japanese Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) officials estimate that 5600 kiloliters of oil have spilled to date, in one of the worst oil accidents in Japanese history. The Nakhodka, returning to Russia from China, went down in a storm 110 kilometers northeast of the Oki Islands and broke in two. Thirty-one crew members were rescued from lifeboats, but the captain, 47-year old Valery Melnikov, is presumed dead at sea. The exact circumstances of the sinking are unclear: with legal responsibility and 58 billion yen ($500 million) of insurance money at stake, the crew is under instructions not to give interviews. The ship's owner, Prisco-Traffic, has promised an investigation and full compensation.


The 26-year old, 13,157-ton Nakhodka was due to be decommissioned this year, but passed a regular inspection last year. It was carrying about 19,000 kiloliters of oil, and the Maritime Safety Agency suspects the bow was relatively empty, creating a weak point where it met the heavily-loaded middle section. The storm the Nakhodka encountered was vicious, with winds as high as 180 kilometers per hour. Other theories have been put forward, as well. On January 15, the Russian Transport Minister told a news conference in Moscow that an explosion may have ruptured the tanker, and on January 20, a Russian news agency reported that the tanker collided with a large, partly-submerged object.


The main hull, still containing about 12,500 kiloliters of oil, now lies on the sea bottom 2000 meters below the surface. Its condition is not known, but on January 13, the MSA sighted an oil slick 34 kilometers long and 100-200 meters wide near the wrecked hull. The MSA plans to send a submersible observation device to inspect it for damage. Meanwhile, after the break-up of the Nakhodka, currents carried the lighter 50-meter section of bow in a meandering course all the way to the Japanese coast.


The sequence of prefectures affected by the spill represents a time-lapse photograph of the disaster. The beaches of Fukui Prefecture were struck first on January 7, not only by oil slicks but by the broken-off tanker bow itself, which finally ran aground on a reef near the town of Mikuni. More oil (the largest slick measured 15 by 9 kilometers) reached Ishikawa, Kyoto, and Hyogo prefectures on January 10, threatening the shoreline near Wakasa Bay's 15 nuclear reactors, which use seawater to cool their turbines.


In quick succession, oil washed ashore in Shimane and Tottori prefectures, and then, driven by strong winds, made an end run around the 100-kilometer long Noto Peninsula and entered Toyama Bay in Toyama Prefecture. From there oil has blown northeast up the Honshu coast, reaching Niigata on January 20 and Yamagata on January 24.


Winter in the Japan Sea is stormy. Cleanup both offshore and onshore has been slow due to bad stretches of weather (waves as high as 6 meters) and inadequate equipment. The MSA now has 50 patrol boats and ten airplanes working up and down the coast, but has been criticized for reacting slowly to the spill. The Seiryu Maru, Japan's largest oil recovery ship, arrived on January 13 to vacuum oil off the sea surface, but high waves have limited its effectiveness. On January 18 two Russian cleanup vessels arrived in Ishikawa, but were almost immediately hampered by high seas. And the following week on the 20th, sea sweepers--20-meter nets dragged by a pair of ships--were dispatched in Ishikawa but called back, again because of high waves.


On land, 800 members of the Self-Defense Force and several thousand volunteers wearing rubber gloves are laboring on beaches, picking up oil scum by hand, or using buckets and scoops. Even with vacuum machines, each site can only make pitiful progress--1 to 3 kiloliters a day. Four volunteers have died of heart attacks: a 53-year old high school teacher, a 77-year old man, and two fishermen, 55 and 69. On January 23, the Fukui board of education released public and private high schools to allow students to work on weekdays.


The bow grounded at Mikuni with about 2800 kiloliters of oil still in its tanks, and soon started leaking. Initially the MSA planned to refloat it and tow it to calmer water, but divers decided that would be impossible. Instead, the MSA deployed ships to drill holes into the bow tanks and pump out the remaining oil. Round-the-clock pumping started on January 16, but had to be abandoned the next day when another storm arrived. Only about 700 kiloliters have been extracted. Simultaneously, as a backup plan, a 200-meter long breakwater and road is being built out to the wreck, in case tanker trucks have to take away the oil. But in two days, high seas washed away 35 meters of the new breakwater.


The toll on the sea ecology, present and future, is another unknown. With the oil seeping into beach sand, recovery will stretch into years. First, it will take some time for microbes to start breaking down the oil. For the oil suspended in the sea, self-purification depends on water temperature, and the Sea of Japan is not warm, especially in winter. In addition, wave strength, sunlight, ocean currents to and from the Pacific, and deep-sea bacteria all come into play to break down oil. The Nakhodka spilled the stickiest fuel oil, grade C, which does not decompose easily.


Starting on January 5, boats spread neutralizing chemicals on the oil, and on the 8th, helicopters started spraying. The MSA has two kinds of chemicals: the first, a detergent-like surfactant that breaks oil into pieces small enough to be consumed by marine bacteria, and the second, a gelling chemical that is used in confined places where the solidified slime can be collected. Until now, seas have been too rough for the gelling chemical, and in fact the surfactant is also hazardous to fish and shellfish, which are likely to get to it before bacteria. In that scenario the chemical can quickly move up the food chain.


Death counts of animal species are sketchy. Birds are being treated at some places along the coast by veterinarians and volunteers. Murrelets (umisuzume), Temminck's cormorants (umi-u), kittiwakes (mitsuyubi-kamome), arctic loons (oohamu), horned puffins (tsunomedori), mew gulls (kamome), and black-tailed gulls (umineko) have all been found oil-soaked. Even a small amount of oil can kill: the oil destroys the bird's own water-repellent oil, and water can penetrate the feathers and lower body temperature until the bird dies of cold. The ways to die are myriad. Birds also ingest the oil while preening, which can lead to suffocation. Birds which cannot eat or drink because of oil-clogged throats or nervous system damage will starve or die of dehydration. Plankton and fish will consume oil particles, and birds that eat them will steadily accumulate toxins in their bodies. Nesting areas along the coast, and migratory rest stops, such as Hegura and Nanatsujima islands, have been hit by oil slicks. Among marine animals, the coastal species are especially at risk. Crabs, shrimp, flatfish, sea urchins, abalone (awabi), sea cucumbers, turban shells (sazae), as well as laver (iwanori) and wakame seaweed, will absorb the brunt of the spill. Deep sea fish and crabs and other creatures will likely fare better.


The fishing industry is already talking about financial assistance to cover losses in fishing income and a possible drop in consumer prices. The Japanese government says that if the Nakhodka's insurance plus an international oil pollution damage fund are not enough, it will cover the rest of the costs; it has set up a council to discuss all compensation matters.


Before the Nakhodka accident, two previous oil spills in Japan leaked a greater volume of oil, but did not spread over such a wide area. In 1971, a tanker ran aground at Niigata, spilling about 7000 kiloliters of oil, and in 1974, 9500 kiloliters of oil leaked into the Inland Sea from broken containers at a Mitsubishi offshore refinery in Mizushima, Okayama Prefecture. For comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled 42,000 kiloliters of oil in Alaska in 1989.


(Gathered from reports in The Japan Times, Daily Yomiuri, Asahi Evening News, and Los Angeles Times.)


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