A storm in the Kerch Strait in between Russia and Ukraine's Crimean peninsula sank four ships and an oil tanker. At least three sailors died, and eight are still missing. The incident resulted in 1,300 metric tons of fuel oil and 6,800 tons of sulfur spilling into the sea.
"As a result of the oil spill into the sea, heavy elements of fuel oil will settle on the seabed and cause hydrocarbons to permeate the Sea of Azov," said Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy department at Greenpeace, Russia. "This will lead to a shortage of oxygen in the water, and the unique fauna will suffer greatly."
Pyotr Romanov, a first deputy chairman of the environmental committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, acknowledged that severe damage would be caused, but said that everyday industrial and car pollution was more detrimental to the environment than the oil spill.
"Unforeseen environmental pollution such as this is of course highly undesirable, but it is not as catastrophic as everyday pollution of the environment through non-compliance with production rules... and the uncontrolled pollution of the atmosphere by the release of gases by cars," he said.
Greenpeace's Chuprov said the incident demonstrated that fuel transportation by sea was unreliable. "It would be better to give up [sea] transit of all forms of fuel because we have no safe technical means for this," he said.
Greenpeace said the sulfur spill posed a lesser threat than the fuel oil. Alexei Kiselyov, coordinator of the environmental group's toxic substances division, said the sulfur had been transported in containers and could be easily lifted from the seabed.
"Even if one of the containers bursts, it will not be particularly dangerous because there is nothing sulfur can react with in water," he said.
However, Sergei Baranovsky, an academician and president of Green Cross Russia, said sulfur was far more harmful to the environment than even the fuel oil spill.
Earlier on Monday, Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian environmental regulator, described the incident in the Kerch Strait as a grave environmental catastrophe and said it would take more than a month to clean up the water.