An oil spill from a tanker that sank in a storm in waters between Russia and Ukraine threatens an ``environmental catastrophe,`` said Vladimir Slivyak, head of the Moscow-based Ecodefense group, according to Bloomberg.

The Volgoneft-139 leaked 1,300 tons of fuel oil into the Kerch Strait linking the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, a Russian Transport Ministry spokeswoman, who declined to be identified, said in Moscow. Four other ships sank in yesterday`s storm that produced six-meter (20-foot) waves, state broadcaster Russia Today reported. Two sailors are dead and 23 are missing, it said.

``The effect will be very serious for the whole marine ecosystem, including fish, because of the high toxicity of oil products,`` Slivyak said by telephone in Moscow yesterday. It will take several months to remove the oil on the surface, while the oil that sank will be ``very hard`` to clear, he added.

The Kerch Strait is a key waterway for transporting oil from the Caspian Sea to tankers in the Black Sea. River tankers in the region transport at least 600,000 barrels a month of oil used for power generation and as ship fuel, Nasrollah Sardashti, chartering manager at Tehran-based National Iranian Tanker Co., said in an interview yesterday.


The 13-member crew of the Volgoneft was saved, Ukraine`s Emergency Ministry said. It is unclear whether oil is still leaking from the ship that was carrying 4,000 tons of fuel oil, the Transport Ministry in Moscow said.

Two transporters, the Volnogorsk and the Nakhichevan, each carrying about 2,000 tons of sulfur, were among the vessels that sank, she said.

A third sulfur-transporting vessel, the Kovel, went down later after striking the Volnogorsk, the Ria Novosti news agency said, citing Alexander Sarapkin, deputy transport prosecutor in the port of Novorossiisk.

In the Black Sea, the storm caused the Khach-Izmail, carrying scrap metal from Ukraine to Syria, to capsize near Sevastopol, according to Ukraine`s Emergency Ministry.

Fifteen members of the crew are missing, while two were saved, it said in a statement.

The oil spill may lead to long-term contamination, said Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian Natural Resources Ministry`s environmental inspectorate, Russia Today reported.

``My forecast is that the coastline of the Kerch Strait and the strait itself will need regeneration,`` he told the broadcaster. ``The oil that`s been spilt could create long-term problems lasting 10 to 15 years.``

The Volgoneft-123 tanker suffered a cracked hull in the storm, Maxim Stepanenko, the Novorossiisk transport prosecutor, told state television. The ship isn`t leaking, he said.

The worst spill in U.S. history was from the Exxon Valdez, which leaked 37,000 tons of crude oil into Alaska`s Prince William Sound in 1989.