Photo/IllutrationWorkers clean up spilled oil near a sluice gate in Omachi, Saga Prefecture, on Aug. 30. (Eiji Hori)

"Muken jigoku" (literally, endless hell), an expression used in an account written by clean-up volunteers after the Russian oil tanker Nakhodka sank in the Sea of Japan in 1997, pretty much summed up their Sisyphean labors as they battled a massive oil spill that eventually reached the Fukui Prefecture coast.

According to their account, titled "Nihonkai kara no Atsui Kaze" (Hot wind from the Sea of Japan), the task felt simply endless. They would scoop up a glob of oil to clear a path, only to see "another band of heavy oil" heading their way.

The volunteers kept filling their buckets with the sticky goop they scraped off the rocks and such.

The Saga Prefecture town of Omachi-cho, where recent torrential rains caused widespread flooding, is now struggling with a massive oil spill.

The oil in the cooling tank of a local steel mill sprung a leak, and became mixed with the floodwater. Because the oil-water mix could not be dumped in the river, the immediate neighborhood of the steel mill remained flooded.

An aerial photo showed bands of black oil undulating on the floodwater. Cleanup crews in boats kept up the mind-boggling work of "mopping up" the goop with oil-absorbing sheets.

At a hospital that got stranded in the flood, people survived on emergency food, but some reportedly became sickened by the stench of the oil.

Every time I cover a scene of flood damage, I notice mountains of mud that have found their way into homes, as well as scattered rubble everywhere. But this time, oil has been added to the toxic mix to plague recovery workers. I deeply sympathize with them for this extra "oil damage" they have to deal with.

The above-mentioned account of the 1997 oil spill recounts how conchs, crabs and other marine life eventually returned to the once-polluted sea. That was the moment when the volunteers’ struggles with the black oil were finally rewarded.

I pray for an early return of normalcy for all survivors of the latest flood and oil damage.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 31

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.