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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cleanup Starts After Deadly Storm

APThe Russian-owned Vera Voloshina cargo ship is seen after running aground during a Black Sea storm on Sunday.
KAVKAZ PORT, Krasnodar Region -- Long stretches of the country's Black Sea coast face an environmental catastrophe, local authorities said Monday, after a fierce storm broke up a tanker, disgorging hundreds of tons of oil onto the shore.

Three seamen were drowned. A search was under way for five others missing, though hopes of finding them alive were dwindling.

Spilled fuel oil coated birds in a thick black sludge along a vast expanse of coastline in the northern mouth of the Black Sea, near the border with Ukraine.

President Vladimir Putin sent Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov to the scene to oversee the cleanup.

"The damage is so huge it can hardly be evaluated. It can be compared with an environmental catastrophe," Krasnodar Governor Alexander Tkachyov said, Interfax reported.

"Thirty-thousand birds have died, and it's just impossible to count the loss of fish," he told regional officials.

Sunday's storm sank the tanker and at least four freighters, while crippling other vessels in the narrow Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.

Alexander Natruskin / Reuters
People on Monday passing a stranded ship on the Krasnodar region coast.
Rescuers on Monday found the bodies of three sailors missing since the storm. Helicopters and rescue vessels searched for five seaman still missing, but with a new storm on its way, officials said hopes of finding them alive were dwindling.

The oil spill came from the Volgoneft-139, a small Russian tanker. Officials said it had released at least 1,300 tons of fuel oil into the sea, though environmental group Greenpeace said it estimated up to 2,000 tons were spilled.

At the coastal settlement of Ilyich, halfway between Kavkaz and Novorossiisk, about 100 workers were on the beach using shovels and a bulldozer to scrape globules of oil off the sand.

Pavel Shevtsov / Reuters
Workers gathering fuel oil-stained algae on a beach near the port of Kavkaz.
"This oil came in last night, along a 13-kilometer stretch," said Alexander Mikhalkov, a cleanup crew foreman.

A flock of about 1,000 rails, a species of wetland bird, were huddled on the beach, unable to fly because their feathers were coated with oil. Some were unable to stand.

Environmentalists -- backed by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- said the incident raised questions about safety standards for shipping in the region.

"In the Borsphorous Straits it is prohibited to use tankers that don't have double hulls. How is the Kerch Strait different?" Yanukovich said at a news briefing.

WWF, the world's largest conservation organization, said in a statement that it hoped "the Black Sea catastrophe will lead Russia to adopt a law guaranteeing proper safety of oil operations at sea and on rivers."

Russian officials said several vessels had put to sea despite storm warnings. The tanker that was the source of the spill, built in the 1970s, was not designed for heavy seas, officials said.

At Novorossiisk, Russia's No. 2 port for exports of oil and oil products, officials had ordered tankers not to dock because a new storm was on its way.