Friday, December 7, 2007

Crisis: Major oil spill on Korea's western coast

A Hong Kong vessel, called the Hebei Spirit, collided with an oil tanker off of South Korea’s west coast on Friday, causing more than 66,000 barrels of crude oil to spill in what was believed to be South Korea’s largest offshore oil leak, officials said.

Strong winds and prevailing currents meant oil was expected to start washing up on shore and flow into fishing grounds and fishing farms, about 6 miles from the leak, by Saturday morning, the Coast Guard said in a statement. Authorities set up a special fence 5 miles in length to try and contain the oil, the statement said. The slick was 4.6 miles long and over 1 mile wide, the ministry said.

The spill occurred in a region known for its scenic beaches, including Mallipo Beach. It is also home to a national maritime park and an important refueling stop for migratory birds. The collision left holes in three containers aboard the tanker. Spills from two containers were later stopped, but oil was still leaking from the third container. YTN, a 24-hour cable news channel, showed footage of the black oil gushing out of the ship and into the ocean.

The South Korean tanker was fitted with one hull. An international ban on such ships is due to start in 2010. Modern tankers are fitted with two hulls to cut the risk of an oil spill and are usually more expensive to hire. South Korean oil companies are probably the world's ``biggest users'' of single-hull tankers, Per Mansson, a tanker broker at Nor Ocean Stockholm AB, said in an e-mailed note today. ``This might change policies in Korea and that would be tremendous for the market.''

South Korea's government will form a committee comprising oil-spill experts and seek help from residents of nearby regions to contain the slick, according to the statement. The vessel held 263,000 tons of crude oil and there were no casualties, it said.

(To put things in an American perspective, in 1989, the Exxon Valdez supertanker released about 260,000 barrels, or 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in what turned into a major environmental disaster.)