By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — News of a vast gas leak and explosion on April 27 in the Komi Republic, 1500 kilometres north-east of the Russian capital, has again focused attention on the catastrophic state of Russia's oil and gas pipeline system. For many people, the latest accident brought back memories of the disaster near the town of Usinsk in the same region during August and September, when huge amounts of crude oil poured from a ruptured pipeline into surrounding forests and swamps.
The Usinsk oil disaster, however, did not end then. Rather, it went into deep freeze. Soon after the spill, the oil that flooded over the landscape was immobilised by the Arctic winter. The government and the oil firm Komineft, which owns the pipeline, had a chance to carry out clean-up work before the spring thaw, due in mid-to-late April. The authorities promised confidently that the effects of the spill would be dealt with by April 1.
But the effort has been marred by naivety, buck-passing between government officials at various levels and bureaucratic lethargy. Funds and equipment have been miserably short.
The inadequacy of the clean-up was tacitly admitted in a report by the Russian government's Emergency Situations Commission, cited by the English-language Moscow Times on April 22. According to the commission, 6000 tonnes of spilled oil had been removed from the environment. The total quantity of oil leaked in the disaster is more than 100,000 tonnes.
In mid-April came the thaw and the beginning of the spring floods. The effort to contain and clear away the spill had been nowhere near enough to stop huge quantities of oil flowing down local streams, bound for the Pechora River and the Arctic Ocean.
"As we feared, the spring has brought a deadly tide of oil over the area", a member of an investigative team from the environmental organisation Greenpeace reported on April 27. "There are acres and acres of blackened marshland, and every river and stream has oil in it."
In a number of catastrophically affected areas, Greenpeace reported, clean-up work had scarcely begun. Elsewhere, dams built to contain the oil had been overwhelmed by floodwaters. A number of pits used to hold oil cleared up during the winter were also flooded. About 1000 tonnes of oil had flowed into the nearby Kolva River, Greenpeace estimated.
The clean-up squads were also using environmentally destructive methods such as setting fire to spilled oil. According to Greenpeace on April 27, clouds of smoke were hanging over the landscape for dozens of kilometres, and in the burned areas all vegetation had been destroyed.
With the battle to contain the oil spill now mainly lost, the disaster is moving into a second, far broader phase. Of the lighter fractions of the oil, thousands of tonnes are likely to finish up spread over wetlands along the lower reaches of the Pechora River, as floodwaters from further south encounter unmelted ice near the river's mouth and spread over the landscape.
The heavier fractions will form toxic clumps that sink to the river beds and wash slowly downstream. This long-term contamination will further devastate the already depleted fish population of the Pechora.
Significant funding for the clean-up appears to be coming through only now, more than six months after it was first needed. On April 26 representatives of Russia and the World Bank signed agreements for loans that included US$99 million to deal with the effects of the Usinsk spill. The loan was welcome, Greenpeace spokesperson Paul Horsman stated, but was nowhere near enough, "especially when compared with the $2.3 billion spent on the Exxon Valdez disaster [in Alaska in 1989], which was a quarter the size of this one".
Meanwhile, Greenpeace reported, there was no sign that foreign oil firms using the pipeline at the time of the spill last autumn — including Gulf Canada, British Gas and Conoco — were contributing to the clean-up effort.
In addition to the April 27 gas explosion, the Komi Republic in recent weeks has also experienced a further oil spill, again near Usinsk. Though described as relatively minor, this spill involved about 1000 cubic metres of oil flowing from a burst pipeline and contaminating some 350 hectares of land.
Ecological activists now regard Russia's decaying oil pipeline system as one of the main threats to the country's environment. The heavily corroded pipeline that burst last autumn had been in use for 19 years — considerably more than its projected service life. Greenpeace campaign coordinator Ivan Blokov noted recently that more than 10% of Russian pipelines are over 35 years old, and 70% are more than 10 years old.
"Most pipelines are in bad condition, and you can expect an accident at any time", Blokov told journalists.