SEOUL - Oil from a damaged supertanker, which spilled 2.7 million gallons of its load into the ocean after being struck by a barge, reached an ecologically sensitive shoreline on South Korea's western coast today, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard dispatched more than 40 ships to try to contain the oil, which gushed from the tanker after it was hit while at anchor early yesterday. But strong winds and currents carried the oil slick to the shore.
About 4 miles of coastline near Mallipo beach, about 95 miles southwest of Seoul, has been affected by the oil, said Jung Se-hi, a spokesman at the South Korea Coast Guard headquarters in Inchon. The spill was believed to be South Korea's largest, according to the Coast Guard and Maritime and Fisheries Ministry.
The single-hulled Hebei Spirit, a 146,000-ton Hong Kong-registered tanker, was hit by a Samsung Corp. barge carrying a crane. The collision occurred about 7 miles off Mallipo beach.
The region is popular for its scenic beaches and is also the site of fish farms, a national maritime park, and an important rest stop for migrating birds.
There were no casualties in the accident, the Coast Guard said.
Maritime authorities set up a 5-mile fence to try to stop the oil slick, which measured 4.6 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, officials said. The Coast Guard said 46 boats, including navy ships and other government vessels, plus four helicopters, were involved in the cleanup operation yesterday. It planned to mobilize 103 vessels and six helicopters today.
Chang Geun-ho, a ministry official, said the extent of environmental damage would depend on the success of the containment operation, though he added that cold temperatures could help slow the spread of the slick by freezing it.
Jung Se-hi, a spokesman at the Coast Guard headquarters in Inchon, said the cleanup operation would probably take at least three or four days.
The size of the leak reported by the authorities was about one-fourth that of the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill that leaked 240,000 barrels, or 11 million gallons, of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. That cleanup cost about $2.5 billion, and the total cost, including fines and settlement of claims, is estimated at $9.5 billion.
A spill in South Korea in 1995, previously considered the country's largest, leaked about 1.4 million gallons of crude and fuel oil. That spill cost $101 million in cleanup expenses and damages to fishermen.
Yesterday's spill was biggest worldwide since 2003, when the Tasman Spirit, a Greek tanker, leaked about 27,000 tons of oil at the port of Karachi, Pakistan.
The Hebei Spirit tanker was struck about 7:30 yesterday morning. It was listing slightly after the accident, said Lee Jang-hoon, an official of the Maritime and Fisheries Ministry. He added that "it's unlikely there will be huge additional spills," Reuters reported.
The tanker was about 5 miles outside the port of Daesan, where it was scheduled to unload its cargo of 260,000 tons of crude oil from the Middle East at the Hyundai Oilbank refinery.
Wind and waves of up to 13 feet were preventing efforts to contain the spill. There was no point in trying to use a floating boom to contain oil already on the sea because the waves were too high, officials said.
Lee said the oil was unlikely to spread north to the major port of Inchon, which serves the capital.
Workers have been trying to shift the oil to tanks that were not damaged in the collision, Lee said. He added that there was concern for the safety of workers because of fumes from the oil.
Material from Reuters was included in this report.