TUZLA SPIT, RUSSIA — Crunching through oil-crusted seashells scattered on fouled beaches among dead and dying birds, exhausted volunteers fumed Wednesday about the uneven distribution of Russia's petroleum wealth.
As far as the eye could see, the pale sands of this narrow finger poking into the Black Sea were coated with a heavy film of black and piles of oil-soaked seaweed. A strong smell of diesel hung in the air.
Three days after a mighty storm cracked a decrepit tanker in two and dumped 2,000 tons of oil into the Kerch Strait, a small army of workers toiled to clear the mess.
Dead dolphins began to wash ashore, adding to the thousands of birds and untold numbers of fish known to have been poisoned.
"Somebody is making millions of dollars by selling oil and sending those ancient tankers to our shore, ready to sink at any minute," said Alexander Gayduk, a middle-aged farmworker from nearby Taman. "But they are not here to help with this mess, are they? Where are the trucks? Where is the heavy machinery we need?"
"All of our problems are because of this oil," said vineyard worker Alexander Ostapenko, 43. "But what's in it for us? They are polluting our sea and land."
With oil prices soaring, Russia is earning vast sums through petroleum exports. The country's oil income not only is fueling the increasingly assertive foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin's government, but creating a new class of fabulously wealthy businessmen, many with ties to the Kremlin.
The government says oil accounts for about half of Russia's economy; some analysts say the figure is much higher. Up to a third of the exported oil moves through the Black Sea.
Russia and Ukraine agreed Wednesday to form a working group led by the deputy transportation ministers of each country to combat the effects of the oil spill, Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich said in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. He said that he and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who flew to the region Tuesday to oversee cleanup efforts, also agreed to develop joint plans for dealing with other emergencies.
The oil spill was only the latest in a history of man-made insults to the Black Sea, which once was a famously polluted, low-oxygen "dead zone." The sea's fortunes improved when the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 put an end to central economic planning and closed down giant feedlots and pig farms.
Since then, the Black Sea has come back to life. Fisheries had steadily improved, along with other sea life and water quality, said Laurence Mee, a British oceanographer who coordinates the United Nations' Black Sea Environmental Program.
But with the world ever thirstier for fuel, the Black Sea has also turned into what Mee calls "the great superhighway for oil," bustling with tankers hauling oil pumped in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea and Russia.
"It's the disaster we've been dreading for many years," Mee said. "It's not a spill on a vast scale, like some of the massive oil spills, but the Black Sea is a totally enclosed basin. There's no place for the oil to go, except on shore somewhere."
Mee predicted that the spill would have a lingering effect on wildlife and tourism at Black Sea beaches and nature preserves in Russia and Ukraine.
Here on the Tuzla Spit, some of the birds that were still alive tried to fly away Wednesday, but their wings wouldn't carry them. They tried to shake off the slimy black coat, but couldn't.
So they sat quiet as black silhouettes against the rocks, trying to get warm against the autumn wind and waiting to die. Seagulls circled overhead, waiting to feast on their corpses.
Firefighters, farmworkers and soldiers spread out over the sands. A cluster of soldiers in heavy rubber chemical suits moved slowly among the black-coated boulders, armed with spades and pitchforks. Sweat ran down their faces.
"Comrade lieutenant," pleaded one, "can we take off these costumes?"
"No," the young commander replied from the road. "You don't want to get sick if the rain comes back again."
Asked whether his men were volunteers, the officer laughed. "Yes, they are. They are ordered to volunteer."
Nearby, a fisherman named Alexander Vnukov stood in his motorboat, fuming. Facing the collapse of his livelihood, he had hoped to salvage his nets. But he found them ruined, clogged with oil.
"We caught a lot of fish, but we had to throw it all away. The fish smelled like oil," he said. "Who would want to buy it? Even I wouldn't eat it."
The closest town is Taman, onetime home to ancient Greeks and considered one of Russia's oldest settlements. Today, bleak rows of dusty and dilapidated houses give no hint of the town's rich history. Jobs are scarce, so most residents eke out a livelihood off the thousands of vacationers and fishermen who flock to the isolated shores. Now, they are fearful for their future.
"This catastrophe hit my business right in the eye," griped Yevgeny Tupilkin, a 47-year-old owner of a fishing shop.