Living on backyard bootleg gas

SUN JOURNAL

Ingenuity: Decades of indifference to fuel leaks offer desperate Chechens a dangerous, illegal livelihood.

April 06, 2001|By John Daniszewski | John Daniszewski,LOS ANGELES TIMES

GROZNY, Russia - Oil-stained Movsar Muzayev looks his visitors over closely and then gestures for them to follow him to a trash heap at the back of his house, overlooking the smoke-gray Sunzha River.

He kicks aside a few garbage bags and lifts a scrap of sheet metal to reveal a cylindrical steel boiler about the size of a small car buried in the riverbank. From it protrudes a Rube Goldberg agglomeration of pipes and tubes. Beneath the tank burns a carefully tended fire.

Next, he points to a hose that emerges from the contraption, disappears into the river and re-emerges on the riverbank, where it runs into a steel drum a few yards away. A clear, bluish liquid is dripping from the hose: gasoline.

Desperation is the mother of invention in Grozny, a place where former taxi drivers, mechanics and bricklayers such as Muzayev are turning themselves into amateur petroleum engineers.

Taking advantage of a unique ecological problem - millions of gallons of gasoline and diesel oil that have spilled into an underground reservoir beneath the city - free-lance operators dig into their basements and back yards to extract this cocktail of pollution.

There are rubles in that soup.

But it is dangerous, unhealthy work. There are unexploded shells and men in uniform demanding bribes - or following orders to stamp out such bootleg producers. Muzayev also has to wrestle heavy barrels in all weather conditions and take care to keep the fire steady so that the condensed fuel does not back up and cause an explosion.

Muzayev, who looks mottled and older than his 41 years, believes that his backyard refinery is making him sick. "But what can I do?" he asks. "I have to feed my children."

Digging up the past

Muzayev is following a generations-old tradition in the Chechen capital, which was one of the early boomtowns of the petroleum industry in the Caucasus Mountains. Oil has been extracted commercially since the 1890s, and at the beginning of the 20th century, Grozny was the second oil capital of the Russian empire, after Baku. In Soviet times, its importance as an oil producer fell, but it remained a center of the refining industry.

That long history of extraction has led to one of the world's worst cases of petroleum spillage, says Sharputdin Zaurbekov, chairman of the ecology department at the Grozny State Oil Institute, a school still turning out graduates despite Chechnya's civil war and economic collapse.

In the early days of the industry, refiners were interested only in kerosene, and all other products were poured back into the earth, he says. And in Soviet times, he adds, "You know the attitudes toward nature."

As a result, a vast "lake" of spilled fuel lies beneath Grozny, in some places just a few yards above the water table.

"Thank God, it has not reached our drinking water. But logically, it is very close," Zaurbekov says. Many Grozny residents take their water from wells.

But one man's ecological disaster is another's meal ticket.

Bislan Abubakarov, 24, got into the business after his family, which had fled the fighting last year between Russian federal troops and Chechen separatists, returned and found no way to earn money. Recalling that some sewer workers had struck fuel years earlier, he decided to investigate for himself.

In the courtyard of a ruined house across the street from where he lived, he and friends descended into the sewer and broke through its brick floor. They needed to excavate just a few more feet until they struck the spill. Now they bring the murky liquid to the surface with buckets and pumps and sell it to processors.

Abubakarov estimates that they have taken at least 200 tons out of this hole, and they have dug others in the area. He sells the fuel, which he says is mostly gasoline, to a bootleg refiner like Muzayev for 1.2 rubles a quart, and ends up with about 1,000 rubles (about $36) a day in profits.

But one constant worry is the payoffs that must be made to keep operating. "Soldiers come here and threaten to shoot up the place," Abubakarov says. "We pay 1,000 rubles a hole a week in protection - and sometimes more - because different groups come, and you have to pay them too to be safe."

`We have to pay everybody'

Danger, however, is an everyday facet of life in Grozny, and he shows reporters a 20-foot-long military rocket half-buried in the earth behind his house. Soldiers offered to explode it for him, for a fee, he says, but he begged off: "It would blow up my business."

Magomet and Khasan Dakhtayev, brothers who deliver the fuel to the processor, nod in agreement as Abubakarov speaks of the bribes he must pay.

"We have to pay everybody, even the Chechen militia," says Magomet, 27. "There is one law here - whoever has a uniform is king of the road, whether he is a Chechen or a Russian. So, little changes in this profession since the federals came here."

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