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Japan coastal residents fight spill with spades, ladles

January 9, 1996
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EST (2200 GMT)

MIKUNI, Japan (CNN) -- Oil from a sunken Russian tanker continued to spill into the Sea of Japan Thursday as local residents used ladles, buckets and oil removal trucks to cleanse their shores of the dangerous sludge.

It seemed a futile effort as high winds, which had hampered cleanup operations earlier this week, kicked up again, sending new oil slicks ashore along the once-picturesque western coastline of Japan's main island of Honshu.

"We have a long way to go," said Mikuni official Tadatoshi Kadoe. "We're working hard to clean up but the oil keeps coming."

The tanker was hauling some 19,000 tons (133,000 barrels) of fuel oil when it sank in stormy seas on January 2. The 31 crew members were rescued, but the captain is still missing.

The spill threatened 285 miles of coastline along the Sea of Japan including some of the countries most fertile fishing areas as well as small ports and tourist resorts.

In Mikuni, a fishing village 330 km (200 miles) west of Tokyo, local residents and officials were trying to save their livelihood from the oily sludge endangering some of Japan's best seaweed-producing and fishing grounds. It was tough work, especially with the majority of it still being done by hand.

"My back and the rest of my body are already hurting. No one knows how long this will take," said one woman who was among about a thousand people cleaning the shores by hand.

"We're trying our best. There's nothing else we can do," said another woman who covered her face with a cloth mask to avoid fumes from the errant oil.

Authorities are also trying to help, but to little avail. Maritime Safety Agency vessels and helicopters are still trying to dilute the spill at sea. The Russians, also, reportedly have sent a ship to help.


For many local residents the help may be too little, too late. Most agree this year's crop of seaweed is ruined, and fishing will be hurt.

"All I can do is cry," said one woman in Mikuni. "If help had come earlier a lot could have been saved."

"This couldn't have happened at a worse time," said a local man. "It's harvest season for seaweed and shellfish. They're all dead now."


Dead birds were washing ashore along some parts of the coastline and others weakened by the spill were rescued.

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

But, with authorities uncertain of just how much oil has leaked, or where it will end up, no one is venturing a guess as to the final extent of the damage.

Tokyo Bureau Chief John Lewis contributed to this report.  

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