Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Massive New Slicks Hit Japanese Coast

MIKUNI, Japan -- The battle against one of Japan's worst oil spills grew more difficult on Thursday as massive new slicks whipped by heavy winds quadrupled to 450 kilometers the coastline affected by the spill.

The shoreline threatened by the breakup of an ageing Russian tanker spanned six prefectures on the Sea of Japan, stretching from around Kyoto to the Noto Peninsula, the Fisheries Agency said in a statement.

"With oil continuing to spill from the tanker ... the disaster could turn out to be one of the worst in the nation's history," Japan's Kyodo News Service said.

The area includes some of Japan's most fertile fishing areas as well as small ports and tourist resorts.

Oil reached the coastline of Hyogo Prefecture on Thursday morning, about 160 kilometers from where the bow of the ruptured tanker Nakhodka washed up on rocks in Mikuni, a fishing town of 20,000 people.

The stern, where two-thirds of the oil was stored, sank about 115 kilometers offshore and much of the oil now leaking from there has not yet even reached shore.

"It's worse than what we expected," said one fisherman cleaning up the shores at Imagoura in Hyogo Prefecture.

"We have to scoop the oil by hand because the slick is like jelly and won't react to neutralizing chemicals or absorbing mats," a Hyoyo prefectural official said.

Once-thriving fish markets were either shut or had only frozen or processed seafood on sale, a rare sight in Japan.

The cleanup operation was still mainly relying on manual labor, with local residents continuing to scoop up oil from the shore by homemade ladles and hand, while cranes hoisted oil-filled barrels on to coastal roads.

"It's C-grade fuel oil that's been washed to shore, and it's hardening because of the cold," a Maritime Safety Agency official said. "It may not seem like much, but the most effective step we can take to retrieve oil which has reached the shore is to use manpower and scoop it up."

In a mainly symbolic gesture, the Russian government was sending a ship to help with a cleanup effort that press reports estimated could cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Authorities still do not know the extent of the leakage. They initially estimated 3,700 tons of oil spilled from the tanker but now believe this figure is too low.

The Fisheries Agency said coastal shellfish and seaweed growing operations sustained damage and it feared the oil would harm offshore net and bottom fishing for shrimp and crabs.

The 13,157-ton Nakhodka, a 26-year-old vessel, carrying 19,000 tons of fuel oil, sank in stormy seas Jan. 2. The 31-man crew were rescued but the ship's captain was missing.

Japan's worst oil spill was in 1971, when 7,200 tons of oil were spilled from a tanker that ran aground near the port city of Niigata on the Japan Sea.

Wildlife authorities reported increasing numbers of cases of seagulls and other birds coated with oil from the spill but the greatest toll so far was to fish, seaweed and shellfish such as the Mikuni area's famed crabs which sell for up to $100 each.

"We are getting more and more reports of dead birds," an official of the Maritime Safety Agency said.

Hugh Parker, London representative of the International Tanker Owners' Pollution Federation Ltd, who arrived in Japan to survey the scene, said the cleanup work was going very well.

"It is more advanced than I thought it would be," he said.