In Russia, cover-up is as big as oil spill

October 31, 1994|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Staff Correspondent

USINSK, Russia -- The snow came late this year, but it has finally covered what angry and defensive officials here don't want the world to see: a landscape saturated with oil, swamps and creeks choked with oil, 60 miles of riverbanks greased with oil.

Years of neglect, poor maintenance and indifference have left the northern reaches of the Komi Autonomous Republic with a disastrous amount of oil on the ground.

No one cared to mention it until the U.S. government raised the alarm last week, saying an oil spill here might surpass the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

But the problem here is not a single dramatic rupture. The Komineft pipeline leaks all the time. Oil spewing through the Arctic bogs and forests is business as usual where life is completely under the thumb of the Komineft oil company. This year it just got out of hand.

"We're only just realizing that it's a catastrophe comparable to the Persian Gulf," one Russian oil executive said, referring to Iraq's torching of Kuwaiti oil wells in 1990.

Komineft's managers and local political leaders are adamant that nothing is seriously wrong, that much less oil has spilled than outsiders are reporting and that they can handle the cleanup themselves.

Last week the vice president of the Komi Republic, Vyacheslav Bibikov, vehemently rejected offers of help from Canada, Denmark, Sweden and the United States, and told Moscow to stay out of it as well.

"We don't need any help. No. No," he said. "This is not Russia's business."

Under intense pressure, especially from the neighboring Nenets region, Komi President Yuri Spiridonov did agree on Saturday to sign a request for U.S. "technical assistance," but Komi officials have made it clear they do not welcome on-the-ground inspection by outsiders.

Reporters have been kept away from the hardest-hit area. A helicopter tour Friday that included environmental officials from Moscow proved little because the helicopter never put down and most of the spilled oil was obscured by snow.

Other problems

Besides spilled oil, there are other conditions here that outsiders -- especially government officials from Moscow -- might question.

Komineft, which reportedly pumps 2.6 million barrels of oil a month, hasn't paid its workers since April. It says it can't afford to pay compensation to those affected by the spills, which will amount to at least $20 million. Its managers manipulated the mandated distribution of shares to employees earlier this year in such a way that the employees received hardly any shares at all -- which has destroyed morale and spawned a growing protest movement. And the company has provided little equipment or training for the cleanup.

From a breached earthen dam above Palnishor Creek to the village of Ust Usa, 60 miles away at the confluence of the Usa and Pechora rivers, the effort to clean up hundreds of thousands of barrels of heavy petroleum comes down to men like Volodya Orikhan.

Mr. Orikhan is boss of a gang of 12 men working at Palnishor Creek since Oct. 10. They've cut down trees along the banks, dug out the oily muck with a bulldozer, and tried to coax the nearly coagulated chocolate brown pudding that fills the stream into a pump.

"I have no idea where it comes from," he said. "And of course we can't get it all. It will never be like it was."

In the Komi capital of Syktyvkar, 375 miles to the south, Anatoly Nuikin, head of civil defense, said, "We haven't found one dead fish, one dead bird, one dead animal."

In Palnishor Creek, all the fish have died.

Downstream, where the creek enters the Kolva River, scabs of oily brown ice jostle each other in the swift current. The river smells powerfully of oil. Nikolai Ponomaryov, a Komineft executive, said the ice is brown because of the river's high iron content.

Mr. Ponomaryov also said that there has been no appreciable amount of oil in the Pechora, a major river, fed by the Kolva and Usa, that flows north to the Barents Sea.

A Russian fisheries official, Stanislav Poltoratsky, said that a large "plug" of oil flowed down the Pechora last week -- but that it must be from an earlier accident because oil from the latest spill hasn't reached that far. But he said that "it goes without saying" that it will.

The Pechora used to support a major fishing operation, but the salmon population is 10 percent of what it was 10 years ago, Mr. Poltoratsky said, with most of the decline coming since the first big oil spill in 1988.

Before it reaches the sea the Pechora flows through the Nenets region, where fishing is the main livelihood. Officials there are not as unconcerned as their counterparts in Komi are. They believe the oil spills are a catastrophe.

According to Komineft officials, the company pipeline sprang two leaks Aug. 12, was shut down Aug. 26, and was finally bTC repaired Sept. 6. In that time, they say, precisely 14,033 tons of oil, or about 100,000 barrels, leaked out.

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