The stricken Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea could burn for as long as a month, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said on Wednesday, as the blaze raged for a fourth day after a collision with a freight ship.
Dozens of rescue boats battled strong winds, high waves and poisonous fumes to comb a 3,100-square-kilometre area for 31 missing sailors and tame the fire, amid growing concerns the ship may explode or sink.
“We believe flames could last for two weeks or a month considering previous cases of oil tank accidents,” official Park Sung-dong said.
“What we are concerned about at this moment is the bunker fuel, which could contaminate water if [the ship] sinks.”
China’s transport ministry said in a statement that no large-scale oil spills had been found on the sea surface by 6pm on Tuesday.
The oil from the tanker was condensate oil that was expected to quickly evaporate upon hitting the water, with “very little residue on the water’s surface”, the ministry said.
The condensate was burning off or evaporating so quickly it would leave little residue – less than 1 per cent – within five hours of a spill, the ministry added.
The tanker Sanchi run by Iran’s top oil shipping operator, National Iranian Tanker Co, collided on Saturday with the CF Crystal carrying grain from the United States, about 300km off China’s coast near Shanghai.
The Sanchi was carrying to South Korea 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultralight crude that is highly flammable, equivalent to about 1 million barrels and worth about US$60 million.
Condensate is highly volatile when exposed to air and water and concerns were growing the tanker could explode and sink. The South Korean ministry official said the authorities suspected the tanker caught fire as soon as it hit the freighter carrying grain.
Park said it was unlikely the oil would spread to South Korea because the tanker had moved 100km to the southeast.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse