HONG KONG — An oil spill from an Iranian tanker that sank in the East China Sea is rapidly spreading, officials said Tuesday, alarming environmentalists about the threat to sea and bird life in the waterway.
The tanker, the Sanchi, was carrying 136,000 tons of highly flammable fuel oil when it crashed into a freighter on Jan. 6. On Sunday, the Sanchi sank after a huge blast sent up a great plume of black smoke and set the surface of the water on fire, China Central Television said.
The bodies of three crew members have been recovered, and the remaining 29 were presumed dead, the Iranian government said. Thirty Iranians and two Bangladeshis were believed to have died.
The oil slicks from the sunken tanker were growing in size, China’s State Oceanic Administration said Tuesday. There are now two huge slicks covering 52 square miles, compared with just four square miles the previous day. Strong winds were pushing the spill toward Japan, away from China, and it was now less than 200 miles from Naha, Japan.
One concern is that, since the Sanchi sank, marine life will be endangered by the fuel oil’s spreading instead of burning off. And experts are further concerned that the even dirtier bunker fuel powering the tanker will be released into the sea, exposing delicate marine life to the extremely toxic substance.
Greenpeace expressed alarm about the threat to the marine ecosystem in the East China Sea, which is one of the world’s most heavily trafficked waterways, saying the disaster occurred in “an important spawning ground” for fish.
“At this time of year the area is used as wintering ground by common edible species such as hairtail, yellow croaker, chub mackerel and blue crab,” Greenpeace said. “The area is also on the migratory pathway of many marine mammals, such as humpback whale, right whale and gray whale.”
The tanker was carrying more than one million barrels of condensate, an extremely light crude oil, to South Korea when it collided with the freighter. When spilled, the condensate can produce a deep underwater plume damaging to marine life.
The Japanese Coast Guard said the fire on the surface of the sea was extinguished early Monday.
“Given the poor condition of the ship after a week of fire and explosions, it is likely that all cargo (and fuel) tanks are breached, and all of this toxic hydrocarbon mixture has now been released into the environment,” said Rick Steiner, a marine conservation specialist formerly with the University of Alaska.
“If so, this is the single largest environmental release of petroleum condensate in history,” he said.
The Sanchi disaster appears to be the largest tanker spill since 1991, when an unexplained detonation caused the ABT tanker to leak 260,000 tons of oil off the coast of Angola.
Hiroshi Takahashi, a fisheries official in Kagoshima Prefecture in Japan, said the government was “monitoring the direction” of the spill because of fears it “could direct towards Kagoshima.”
The deaths of the Iranian crew members on the tanker prompted Iran’s government to declare a day of national mourning on Monday to honor “the brave mariners who died in the course of their mission.”
Eshaq Jahangiri, Iran’s first vice president, said that efforts to recover the bodies of 29 crew members ceased when the tanker sank off the China’s coast on Sunday.
Because of the release of toxic gases in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, there was little hope that the crew members survived, but efforts to recover their bodies had continued, Mr. Jahangiri said. “Unfortunately, the ship sank and we could not access their bodies.”
Officials still don’t know the cause of the collision between the Sanchi and the CF Crystal, a Chinese freighter that was carrying grain.
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