Second oil disaster in Estonia within two months

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Location of oil spill March 19

Estonian and Finnish oil spill response vessels are working on cleaning up the oil spill caused by the sinking of the Runner 4. The Dominican-registered ship sank on March 6 near the Estonian coast in the Gulf of Finland.

This oil disaster may be even worse than the one of February, which was described by the BBC as the worst oil spill that Estonia has ever experienced. In the February spill, approximately 35 000 birds died. According to The Baltic Times, specialists say that this time up to 40 tons of oil might have leaked into the sea from the Runner 4. The ship was carrying, according to MTV3, over 100 tons of heavy fuel oil and 35 tons of light fuel oil.

The ship Runner 4 sank due to a collision with another ship, in a convoy following a Russian icebreaker. The crew managed to leave the ship before it sank.

On March 13, a week after the ship sank, the Estonian Border Guard sent its multipurpose vessel EVA-316 to the site to start the oil cleanup. Around the same time, the Finnish dedicated to the cleanup the oil spill response vessels Hylje, Halli and Seili. Also, the Finnish Frontier Guard patrol ship Merikarku was sent to the site to conduct underwater robot examinations of the sunken ship. According to the Finnish Environment Institute press briefing on this, [1] Estonia does not have adequate equipment for oil spill response in icy conditions, so help was needed.

The reaction to the disaster is criticized by Jouni Pirttijärvi, an inspector at the Finnish Environment Institute (Ympäristökeskus). He says, according to Finland's national broadcasting company (YLE), that the countermeasures should have started a week ago, immediately after the disaster, instead of now. He said, "It's difficult now to get the oil under control. It's spread all around, and ship traffic is spreading it further. We should have come here a week ago. Then the oil would have been closer to the disaster area [the ship's sinking site]. We weren't asked for help [by the Estonians] then, so now we decided to help without asking [before it's too late]." (Translation from the Finnish-language original). [2]

Finland will be paying the costs of the cleanup, as Estonia did not make an official request for help. The Estonian Border Guard's representative Helena Loorents says that Finland was not asked for help, as every day spent in the cleaning costs a lot of money. Estonia simply cannot afford this.

According to Urmas Raudsepp, the director of Estonia's Institute of Marine Research, the oil spill's location was only found out on Thursday March 16. The Finnish ships had, however, arrived at the site on the day before.

Jouni Pirttijärvi also said that the conditions in the site are bad. The wind is over 17 meters per second (38 miles per hour) and it is raining. The oil spill is moving into waters too shallow for the three Finnish vessels, so they can no longer do their job. Hylje will be heading back to Finland on March 19 and the other two might follow within a few days. According to the Estonian paper Postimees, the oil spill is now a kilometer (0.6 mile) away from the Estonian capital of Tallinn.