Russia's Black Future

By Shanti Menon|Thursday, February 01, 1996
The good news: Most of the huge oil spill from a Russian pipeline has been cleaned up. The bad news: It’s just a drop in the barrel.

The Kharyaga-Usinsk regional pipeline stretches across 100 miles of northern Russia, carrying as much as 220,000 barrels of oil each day from the Pechora oil fields to a larger pipeline that heads for the Russian heartland. It employs, directly and indirectly, more than 20,000 people. And since 1994, says the World Bank, it has leaked some 730,000 barrels-- more than 100,000 tons. A U.S. government estimate puts the figure at 270,000 tons. The precise amount is hard to determine because the oil seeps out over miles of corroded pipeline. But even the lower estimate makes this spill nearly three times the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez. Since early last year, an international team of experts has been trying to clean it up.

The land around the pipeline is forested and boggy and crisscrossed by streams that feed rivers that flow to the Barents Sea. For 20 years oil has been pumped in the area, about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow, with little regard for the environment. Spills, if not ignored entirely, were simply bulldozed over or burned. Most of the wildlife has already left the area, and studies show that the freshwater fish catch in the Usinsk region has declined by 85 percent.

The major leaks from the pipeline that began in mid-1994 came on top of this chronic pollution. By the fall, thick, sticky oil had pushed past government-built earthen dams and had begun to enter the Kolva River, the main water supply for local villagers. Luckily winter came, lowering water levels and immobilizing the bulk of the oil, trapping it in streams and swamps over 170 acres of land. But that left tons of ooze with the consistency of peanut butter poised to enter the river system with the spring floods. Realizing this was not the sort of spill that could be bulldozed over, the Russian government requested emergency assistance. Help arrived in March in the form of Hartec Management Consultants, an Alaska- based oil-cleanup company, and in the form of $124 million in loans from the World Bank and a European redevelopment fund.

When we arrived, the streams were filled bank to bank, says Hartec president Bert Hartley, who was the general manager of the Exxon Valdez cleanup. I mean 20 to 30 feet across and 6 to 7 feet deep of oil for two or three miles. Hartec went to work at six sites along the pipeline and finished building earthen dikes and dams just in time to hold back thousands of tons of oil from flooding rivers and sweeping into fishing grounds in the Barents Sea. Then the workers moved in with booms and skimmers to pick up the standing oil. By October, according to Hartley, they had collected 90 percent of the oil that posed a direct threat to the river system. I did not think, quite frankly, once I saw what a tremendous quantity there was, that we’d be able to get it picked up anywhere as much as we did, he says. Hartley expects the work to be finished this spring.

The general consensus seems to be that the rivers and fishing grounds had to be protected. But there is less consensus on whether Hartec’s aggressive cleanup, successful as it has been, was worth the cost, both environmental and financial. The building of dams and roads has permanently altered the landscape, and so has the removal of the spilled oil. Getting oil out of a marsh is hard to do without destroying vegetation, says Jerry Galt of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who studies the spread of pollution. The question is, are you going to hurt more than help? If you leave the oil there, you’ve got decades of gooey black tar. If you scrape it up, you’ve got decades of destroyed vegetation, which could be worse.

And even if this disaster had to be cleaned up as thoroughly as it was, it can’t be a model for how to deal with Russia’s chronic oil- pollution problem. All over Siberia, old and corroded pipelines are being forced to carry ever more oil to fuel the cash-starved Russian economy. Infrastructure needs to be more efficient before they extract more oil-- that would make a huge difference, says Paul Horsman of the environmental group Greenpeace. But it’s not in the interest of oil companies or the Russian government, which is desperate for hard currency. It’s a huge problem, and I fear it’s going to get worse.
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