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by Jeff Durbin


Winter in the Sea of Japan is always severe, but this year the consequences have been especially heavy. Three months have passed since the Russian oil tanker Nakhodka, on its way to Russia from China, sank during a storm on January 2, 110 kilometers northeast of the Oki Islands. Due to causes still under investigation, the Nakhodka broke into two pieces, spilling 5000 kiloliters (4500 tons) of oil. The two halves of the ship, both leaking, went their separate ways: the bow toward the coast of Fukui Prefecture, and the main hull to the sea bottom. Oil has washed onto the shores of ten prefectures, from Shimane in the south to Akita in the north, with Fukui and Ishikawa the hardest-hit.


Oil-collecting ships contended with rough seas for weeks on end and gathered only about 625 kiloliters of oil. On February 24, with few oil slicks remaining, the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) stopped cleanup operations in the Sea of Japan. Meanwhile, about 200,000 people, most using shovels and sieves, have volunteered for the tedious work of beach cleanup. Organizers want to make a final push before spring, when the oil will start to melt into sand and rock crevices. Damage to the marine and coastal environments is great, but will take more time to assess.


For five days, the Nakhodka's bow drifted toward the coast of Fukui Prefecture, where it struck a reef 200 meters offshore at Mikuni. With oil tanks leaking, the MSA began extracting oil from the bow, and did not finish until late February, 41 days later. On most days, no work was done at all because of seas up to six meters high. In all, 2830 kiloliters were pumped out. Over the next few months, salvage companies will try to raise the bow off the reef.


Such an operation, however, will be nearly impossible with the main section of the Nakhodka, which sank about 140 kilometers northeast of the Oki Islands. The hull, still holding an estimated 11,000 kiloliters of oil, is now resting 2500 meters down on the sea floor. A deep-sea probe has noted oil leaking from a deck hatch, but the extreme pressure should prevent rapid leaking. That same pressure, though, will probably rule out lifting the hull to the surface, and other salvage options are equally difficult: one idea is to extract the oil and leave the wrecked ship at the sea bottom; another is to seal the ship with sand and cement.


Five cleanup volunteers have died, all of heart failure soon after finishing work. Even though four had specifically purchased volunteer insurance, their deaths will probably not be covered because they died from illness, rather than sudden, accidental injury. The Japanese government, however, will award one million yen to their families. Many volunteers have suffered from sore throats and skin and eye irritations due to the oil, as well as backaches.


The body of the Nakhodka's captain, Valery Melnikov, was discovered on a Fukui beach on January 26. According to crew interviews, he stayed on the tanker after making sure all 31 crew members (subsequently rescued by the MSA) had boarded lifeboats.


The Japanese and Russian governments continue to quarrel over the cause of the accident. A Russian accident report claims the Nakhodka sank after a collision with a floating or submerged object; Japanese experts say cracks in the wreck are not consistent with a collision. Japan believes it is more likely that the 26-year old tanker broke under powerful waves. During the storm, weather stations recorded winds of 180 kilometers per hour and waves nearly eight meters high. One crewman said that a large wave split the tanker's deck, and the following wave broke the ship apart. The MSA also believes uneven loading may have caused a weakness in the tanker body. According to a March 22 report, Transport Ministry investigators examining the Nakhodka's bow have found the hull had lost over 20 percent of its thickness because of corrosion.


Both countries have promised to continue their investigations and share information. The ship's owner, Prisco Traffic, has an interest in a verdict of accident by collision. If the ship is judged to have been sound and there is no human error, the ship's insurance company will have to pay damages, and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund will contribute, up to a ceiling of 22.5 billion yen ($187 million). According to a Fund lawyer, two years may be needed to settle the issue, but the Fund has just paid about one billion yen as a stopgap measure.


Cleanup operations so far have cost 9 billion yen ($75 million), and damage to the fishing industry is estimated at 7 billion yen. Other damages in the seven worst-hit prefectures exceed 1.5 billion yen. Prefectures and towns have received over one billion yen ($8 million) in donations, but have not decided how to make best use of the money.


Editorial boards and citizens from around the country have criticized the national government for its slow and confused response, and for leaving matters up to prefectural and municipal governments. It took two days for the MSA to request an oil recovery ship from the Transport Ministry, and four days to ask for help from the Maritime Self-Defense Force. The Maritime Disaster Prevention Center was not approached until January 14, 12 days after the Nakhodka sank.


The 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, which spilled 41,000 kiloliters (eight times the Nakhodka) in Alaska, was the catalyst for forming quick response systems in the U.S., the U.K., and Norway. But the Japanese government has admitted it did not have cohesive plans for dealing with the spill, and lacked oil-salvage ships (with none stationed in the Sea of Japan) and effective oil-neutralizing chemicals. Oil recovery scenarios did not take into account the Japan Sea's roughness in winter, which can render recovery vessels useless. Even existing ships are not suitable for dealing with C grade oil, the most viscous kind, which the Nakhodka spilled. Sixteen percent of the world's oil shipments pass through Japanese waters.


The final frustration is that the Nakhodka just missed the requirement to have a double-layered hull. Since tougher laws were passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, ships over 25 years old and 20,000 tons must have a double hull. The Nakhodka is 19,986 tons. According to the Japan Maritime Research Institute, there are 1195 ocean tankers in the world more than 20 years old; just 14 have double-layered hulls.


(Gathered from reports in The Japan Times and Daily Yomiuri.)


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