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Japanese coastal towns brace for oil slick from Russian tanker

January 5, 1997

TOKYO (AP) _ Coast guard workers struggled to dissolve a mile-long oil spill with chemicals Sunday while western Japanese ports organized defenses to keep the slick from slipping into their bays.

The eastern edge of the 962,000-gallon spill was about 40 miles from the city of Fukui, 190 miles west of Tokyo, said coast guard official Hisao Nishiya.

The oil spilled into the Sea of Japan on Thursday when a Russian tanker carrying about 5 million gallons of fuel oil broke apart in rough seas and sank about 90 miles off Japan’s western coast.

Much of the oil went down with a portion of the tanker, Nakhodka, which was traveling from Shanghai, China, to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Thirty-one crewmen were rescued but the ship’s Russian captain remains missing and the cause of the accident is unclear.

By late Sunday, the spill had broken into two large oil slicks and numerous smaller spots. The fuel stretched southeast for 1,000 feet from the site of the wreck, 66 miles northeast of the Oki Islands.

Currents carried the spill southeast toward shore Sunday, although workers might be able to clean up the fuel before it reaches land, Nishiya said.

Coast guard ships were spraying detergents to dissolve the fuel.

The fuel oil is thinner than crude, but much thicker and harder to dissolve than gasoline or kerosene.

Port authorities in Kyoto and Fukui prefectures were preparing to set up curtains of floating plastic to keep the oil from entering their bays. Such curtains, however, will not keep the fuel from washing ashore elsewhere, Nishiya said.

The coast guard said oil may remain in the bow of the ship, which was floating near the slick. Rough seas foiled a salvage ship’s attempt to retrieve the bow early Sunday.

A ship capable of scooping up floating sludge was expected to arrive Tuesday, Nishiya said. He said it could take weeks to clean up the area.

Akihiko Kuwahara of the Kyoto Institute of Fishery Science, a local government agency, said the spill still had not reached coastal fishing grounds, but there isn’t much fishing this time of year anyway.

The sinking has worsened an energy crisis in the Russian Far East, where officials on the Kamchatka Peninsula have imposed fuel conservation measures.

Japan’s worst oil spill was in 1974, when more than 2 million gallons leaked from a fuel oil tank at a coastal refinery in southwestern Japan.

Update hourly