Tanker Leaks Oil Off S.Korea Coast
By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - A large oil tanker gushed thousands of tons of oil into the sea near one of South Korea's most scenic coastlines after being hit by a barge, South Korea's maritime ministry said on Friday.
The Hong Kong-registered Hebei Spirit was struck while at anchor off Daesan port in the Taean region on the country's west coast and the ministry said it had already leaked some 10,800 metric tons of crude oil.
"A barge ship being towed ... collided with the oil tanker at anchor, breaching the cargo section and leaking crude oil," ministry official Lee Jang-hoon told reporters.
But he added that because the ship was listing slightly "it's unlikely there will be huge additional spills."
The leak is about a third of the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of crude oil onto Alaskan shores, which was the costliest on record. That clean-up alone cost around $2.5 billion while the total cost, including fines and claims settlement, is estimated at $9.5 billion.
The very large crude carrier (VLCC) Hebei Spirit was about 5 miles outside the port, waiting to unload its cargo of 260,000 tons of crude oil from the Middle East. The port is about 110 km (70 miles) southwest of Seoul.
Wind and waves of up to 4 meters (13 ft) were preventing efforts to contain the spill, which the official said could reach the coast in less than 48 hours.
There was no point in trying to use a floating boom to contain oil already on the sea because the waves were too high.
Lee added that there was also concern for the safety of workers from fumes coming from the oil.
The Taean region's coast is popular for its beaches and is home to a national maritime park. It is also an important refueling stop for migratory birds.
Lee said the oil was unlikely to spread north to the major port of Incheon, which serves the capital.
Workers have been trying to shift the oil to tanks that were not damaged in the collision, he said.
South Korean refiner Hyundai Oilbank said the oil on the tanker had been destined for its Daesan refinery. A company spokesman said the refiner did not have plans to buy additional crude due to the incident because it had sufficient stocks.
Technical managers of the MT Hebei Spirit issued a statement later in the day, confirming the collision with a local crane barge called "Samsung No.1" owned by Samsung Heavy Industries.
The statement said no injuries were reported but the vessel's side shell on tanks No.1, 3 and 5 portside was breached and crude oil had leaked out. It said the exact quantity is not known.
(Additional reporting by Angela Moon, writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Keiron Henderson and Alex Richardson)