Oil Fouls Russian World Heritage Beaches

KALININGRAD, Russia, July 16, 2003 (ENS) - Oil seeping from a sunken Chinese cargo vessel has been washing up on the environmentally sensitive shores of a Russian World Heritage site near Kaliningrad, Russian officials said today.

The Curonian Spit, a long, narrow strip of sand that forms a lagoon along the Baltic Sea coast, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.

Oil from the Chinese vessel has polluted 70 kilometers (43 miles) of beaches near the resort towns of Baltiisk and Zelenogradsk, as well as the township of Kulikovo.

Tatiana Grin, head of the Kaliningrad specialized maritime inspectorate, told RIA Novosti today that oil from the Chinese ship Fu-Shanghai, which sank two weeks ago off the Danish island of Bornholm, is showing up on the Curonian Spit, to the alarm of environmentalists and vacationers.

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A Russian section of the Curonian Spit near Kaliningrad (Photo courtesy Greenpeace Russia)
Local environmentalists have warned that it will not be possible to remove oil from the spit without damaging it, but Grin said 317 kilograms (817 pounds) of fuel oil and 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds) of an oil and sand mixture have already been collected.

The popular Curonian Spit beaches will be clean enough for swimming within the next few days, she said.

But experts from the Russian environmental advocacy organization Ecodefense! who inspected the coast on July 15 and 16 believe the official statement is "out of reality."

"Each visitor to the beach can confirm that the official data is not realistic," said Alexandra Koroleva, Ecodefense! co-chair. "It is obvious that real situation is much worse than it is stated by authorities. The amount of oil on the coast is at least 13 times larger than officially stated."

The Chinese vessel sank after a collision with a Cypriot container ship on May 31. Danish and Swedish rescue services evacuated all 27 Fu Shanghai crew members. The cause of the collision is under investigation.

The spit, created thousands of years ago by the activity of the waves against the sand, is still changing, due to the constant influence of wind, weather and waves.

The entire 100 kilometer (62 mile) Curonian Spit spans Russia and Lithuania. It is a national park in both countries, and the World Heritage site includes the spit in both countries as well.

Some of the highest sand dunes in Europe have formed on the spit, and elk roam its forests, planted in the 19th century to halt the sand erosion.

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Dunes on the Curonian Spit (Photo courtesy Baltma Tours)
Ecodefense! says the oil washing up on the Curonian Spit this week is a precursor of things to come if oil exploration and development is permitted in the area.

Ecodefense! has been campaigning against oil exploration near the Curonian Spit by Russia's largest oil company, Lukoil. In an information action in Zelenogradsk on Saturday, the group warned, "Oil in the sea means oil on the beach."

The oil deposit the Luckoil wants to develop is situated 22 kilometers (13 miles) from the Kaliningrad seashore, near the Lithuanian-Russian border and close to the Curonian Spit.

According to a new Ecodefense! report, "Lukoil: threat to environment and democracy," this region of Baltic Sea is relatively clean and has a high level of biodiversity. Development of such sustainable industries as tourism and fishing is possible, the group says, but the future of the whole region could be reshaped "from an attractive sustainable tourism spot and fishing site to a devastated area."

Ecodefense! complains that during the government's Environmental Impact Assessment Lukoil "illegally limited access to information about the project and countered efforts of public to participate in assessment of the project."