An oil spill off Russia’s Black Sea coast has contaminated an area at least 400 times bigger than initially estimated, scientists say. The spill took place on Saturday, August 7, at a Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) oil terminal near the port city of Novorossiysk. The CPC, which pumps in oil from Kazakhstan, addressed the spill two days later, claiming that an equipment breakdown caused 12 cubic meters of oil (12,000 liters) to spread over 200 square meters (2,153 square feet). Though the consortium claimed that the situation was “normalized” as of August 8, Russian scientists later reported that on that same day, the oil spill covered an area of 80 square kilometers (31 miles). Russia’s natural resources regulator is currently working at the site of the accident to establish just how much oil spilled into the sea. Russian investigators also opened a felony case for environmental damage.
What happened in the Black Sea?
On the evening of Saturday, August 7, a spill took place at an oil terminal on the Black Sea that belongs to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (the CPC, of which the Russian government is a part-owner). The oil spilled while being pumped into a Greek tanker, the Minerva Symphony, located six kilometers (about 4 miles) off Russia’s coast. The terminal itself is located in Yuzhnaya Ozereyevka, near the port city of Novorossiysk. The CPC’s press service said the spill was caused by an equipment breakdown.
The consortium only released a statement two days after the accident, on Monday, August 9. According to the press release, the company deployed booms, oil collection systems, and oil recovery tanks, and contained the spill on the evening of August 7. The company claimed that as of August 8, the situation was “normalized and didn’t pose a threat to the local population, flora, and fauna.” The consortium also stated that about 12 cubic meters of oil (12,000 liters) had spread over an area of 200 square meters (2,153 square feet).
However, on August 10, the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI RAN) reported that according to satellite data, on the evening of August 8, the area of the oil spill was at least 400 times larger than the CPC had initially reported — not 200 square meters, but nearly 80 square kilometers (31 square miles). The scientists added that the oil slick extending from the coast into the open sea stretched 19 kilometers (12 miles); in the 24 hours after the accident, the area of the slick grew from 0.26 square kilometers to more than 85 square kilometers.
The media picked up the scientists’ data and the news spread widely on August 11. The Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s press service didn’t respond to Meduza’s inquiries.
What is being done?
Traces of oil pollution have already been found in Abrau-Dyurso (a rural locality) and the town of Anapa, which are located 15 kilometers (9 miles) and 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the location of the accident, respectively. As reported by RBC, employees at a dolphin aquarium in Anapa noticed oil residue on the surface of the water — after they lowered their hands in the pool, “a greasy, transparent film remained on the skin.” The aquarium’s staff had to set up barriers to protect the animals from being poisoned.
Alexey Knizhnikov, who heads the responsible industry programme at World Wildlife Fund Russia (WWF Russia), said photo and videos from local residents indicate that about seven kilometers (four miles) of the coast between Abrau-Dyurso and the Utrish Nature Reserve in Anapa is oil-contaminated, including “very valuable areas.”
Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko, who oversaw the assessment of the damage from a major fuel spill in the Russian Arctic in 2020, instructed the country’s natural resources regulator (Rosprirodnadzor) to verify the information from the scientists at IKI RAN and assess the real scale of the oil spill in the Black Sea.
Rosprirodnadzor is currently working at the site of the accident. “We took samples, we’re calculating the damage,” a spokesperson for the agency told Meduza, adding that Rosprirodnadzor doesn’t have the capacity to take satellite images. The agency’s executive Svetlana Radionova wrote on Instagram that she has already sent inquiries to the captain of the Novorossiysk port and to the local police.
On Wednesday, August 11, state investigators announced the launch of a criminal case on charges of polluting the marine environment; they’re currently in the process of establishing the circumstances surrounding the incident and the persons involved.
How bad is it?
According to RAN’s chief oceanography researcher Andrey Kostyanoy, the spilled oil hasn’t washed ashore thanks to a storm and the direction of the wind; this means the shoreline shouldn’t require any cleanup. He also said that the oil slick itself could disappear by August 12, through evaporation caused by hot weather in the region. Kostyanoy was among the scientists who uncovered the size of the oil spill on the evening of August 8, while conducting satellite monitoring of the Black Sea’s waters.
However, Alexey Knizhnikov from WWF Russia told Meduza that not all of the contamination is visible on the water’s surface: “The spill took place under water, there are light particles [of oil] on the surface, which can spread like a thin, almost micron-thin film; it’s almost impossible to collect, and it spreads over colossal areas, which we saw — almost in a day the area of the contamination reach 100 square kilometers [39 square miles]. In the warm season these films evaporate really quickly, they’re broken up quickly by the waves, and literally within a few days there will be no significant traces left — but this doesn’t mean that there will be no oil left in the sea.”
Knizhnikov expects the heavier particles to spread into the water column and, because of the waves, this oil will partially dissolve in the water and have a toxic effect on the environment for a long time — and possibly contaminate the coast.
In conversation with Meduza, Knizhnikov recalled the case of the Greek oil tanker MV Prestige, which sank 200 kilometers (124 miles) off the coast of Spain in 2002. The sinking caused 63,000 tons of oil to spill into the sea; after a while, the oil spread and polluted the coast. As a result, the entire coastline from Portugal to southwestern France ended up contaminated with oil products and more than 250,000 birds were killed — the largest die-off in European history.
Exactly how much oil spilled into the Black Sea’s waters while being pumped into the Minerva Symphony remains unknown. The information reported by the Caspian Pipeline Consortium — 12 cubic meters, or 12,000 liters, spread over 200 square meters, or 2,153 square feet — was from the day of the spill itself. Rosprirodnadzor is still trying to find out the actual amount of oil that leaked into the sea. On the evening of August 11, the regulator reported that the seawater in Novorossiysk’s recreational zones meets hygienic standards.
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Translation by Eilish Hart