Even atop the black, craggy cliffs that loom 250 feet above the thrashing Japan Sea, through heavy wind and lashing snow, the stench of oil here is piercing.
“I can smell the oil on my own breath,” said Yoshinobu Nishi, 55, a fisherman. “Come summer, I bet this beach will really stink.”
Nishi and his neighbors spent four days scraping noxious goop from the rocks of a wild and lovely but now oil-coated bay on the Noto Peninsula, an isolated, scenic hump on the back of western Japan. With 500 other sack-toting volunteers, they had collected lots of congealed mess.
Still, Nishi estimates that it is only one-tenth of the gunk that has coated the volcanic cliffs, tidal basins and seaweed-covered outcrops that cannot be reached here.
What began as a serious spill on Jan. 2, when a Russian tanker carrying about 19,000 tons of oil ruptured and sank off the coast of western Japan, has become a full-blown environmental disaster.
Nature preserves, bird sanctuaries, fish spawning grounds and the habitats of prized shellfish, crab, abalone and seaweed species all have been tainted. Four volunteers have died in the cleanup, presumably due to overwork and exposure to cold and the toxic oil fumes.
“It’s far worse than I imagined,” said Takaaki Yajima, professor of ecology at Kanazawa University in Ishikawa prefecture. “There has never been such extensive damage to the Japan Sea.”
Efforts to contain the spill have been thwarted by fierce storms; winter winds have blown the oil straight toward Japan. Blankets or balls of heavy oil are washing up along more than 400 miles of shoreline, polluting some of the last unspoiled areas of the Japanese coast.
This is a slow-motion spill, but it seemingly is unstoppable. Almost a month after the tanker Nakhodka went down, oil continues to leak both from the ship’s belly and from its severed bow.
Authorities keep trying to contain the damage. But the Sea of Japan’s huge winter waves slosh the stuff over flimsy human-made barriers. The sea is too rough for skimmers; cold, thick clumps of oil clog the pipes of equipment designed to vacuum up lighter spills.
“On very rough seas, there just is nothing that works,” said Faith Yando, editor of the Oil Spill Intelligence Report in Arlington, Mass.
The political damage from the spill is already evident. Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto has come under fire in Parliament for his government’s failure to respond faster. If there had been such action, critics say, crews might have kept slicks from coming ashore.
Moreover, the spill has worsened the Japanese public’s already negative attitude toward Russia. The Japanese media have focused on the age of the tanker (26 years) and openly derided a report by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency suggesting that the vessel had collided with a submarine or an explosive object.
Japan’s Self-Defense Forces have been dispatched to help clean beaches and have set up helicopter ferries to carry oil recovered from inaccessible beaches. But the brunt of the filthy work is being done by middle-aged and elderly residents and thousands of volunteers.
In the United States, volunteers are shooed away from spill cleanup, deemed too toxic for unprotected citizens. But most of the Japanese volunteers are working with only gauze face masks and heavy weather gear; many are developing health problems, including nausea, backaches, headaches, inflamed eyes and sore throats.
Many of those laboring for hours in the cold are in their 70s.
Among the volunteers who perished were a 77-year-old fisherman who dropped dead while walking home from a cleanup stint and a 53-year-old high school teacher who wanted to do the work himself before asking his students to volunteer. He collapsed on the beach while hoisting oil-filled bags onto a conveyor belt.
“Until you do this, you can’t imagine how hard it is,” said Kidefumi Orita, 46, a public employee who took a vacation to help clean up the hard-hit town of Suzu.
“A lot of people get nauseated, and it’s hard work, and it’s cold,” he said. “Your back starts to hurt because you are bent over. Your legs get wet. Your feet start to ache. “You are told to rest once an hour and to stop if you feel ill, but when I see the elderly ladies working away without a break, I feel I cannot stop.”