Poison in the water column Ocean pollution is injuring locals and killing marine life off the coast of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula
Over the weekend of October 3–4, reports emerged about the contamination of the Pacific Ocean’s coastal waters around Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula. Surfers at the Avacha Bay’s Khalaktyrsky beach were the first to call attention to the problem. They complained of eye pain, blurred vision, and nausea after coming into contact with the water, and also reported dead fish, shellfish, and seals washed up on the beach. Upon inspecting the area, the regional Environment Ministry found twice the normal level of phenols and a four-fold increase in the amount of oil products in the waters around Khalaktyrsky beach. They also discovered signs of pollution from oil products in three other areas of the Avacha Bay. Greenpeace called the situation an ecological disaster, but the Kamchatka authorities maintain that there’s no talk of large-scale pollution as of yet. While a source told TASS that the oil products could have leaked from a passing tanker, a Meduza source close to the Kamchatka Krai’s government said that it could be due to the military dumping waste into a local river. The Defense Ministry denies any involvement in the incident.
On Monday, October 5, the Head of Russia’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry claimed that in all likelihood the pollution in Kamchatka isn’t man-made. According to Dmitry Kobylkin, water and soil samples taken from the peninsula didn’t show excess amounts of oil, oil products, and their analogues. “[There’s] a second possibility — a natural one. Our Academy of Sciences says that during this time period, during a period of storms, any phenomena linked to an increase in toxicity [can] occur,” he said, as quoted by Interfax.
The Kamchatka authorities also spoke about the “natural” pollution of coastal waters. Regional Governor Vladimir Solodov named three possible reasons for the incident: man-made pollution (a spill of toxic substances), a natural hazard (the accumulation of toxic microalgae), or “seismic activity linked to volcanic manifestations.” Scientists later called the third scenario unlikely.
The exact cause of the water pollution in Kamchatka remains unknown, but research is ongoing. “The causes and scale of the environmental damage are still unclear, so further steps are still unclear. In Norilsk, it was obvious that the oil spill needed to be eliminated, here [that’s not the case]. Further research will be conducted, including on the dead animals,” said a Meduza source in the federal government.
At the end of May, a large-scale fuel spill at a Nornickel subsidiary caused massive environmental damage in the Russian Arctic. Approximately 21,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked out of a damaged reservoir at the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company’s Thermal Power Plant No. 3 in Norilsk, spreading into nearby rivers and the surrounding soil. The regional authorities took several days to respond to the accident. Multiple criminal cases were launched over the spill. Russia’s environmental watchdog, Rosprirodnadzor, estimated the damage at 148 billion rubles (approximately $1.9 billion) — Nornickel’s estimate was just 21.4 billion rubles ($274 million). The accident in Norilsk is the second largest fuel spill in Russia’s history, after the 94,000 ton oil spill that took place in the country’s northern Komi Republic in 1994.
The death of aquatic animals points to pollution not only on the surface of the water, but also in the water column, according to experts from the Kamchatka Department of Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring and the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). “Judging by the fact that species of groundfish and plants were brought to the shore in large quantities, it’s possible to draw the preliminary conclusion that it’s not just the surface of the water that’s contaminated, as would be the case with an oil spill, but it’s [the water’s] entire column,” said Alexey Knizhnikov, the director of WWF Russia’s Environmental Responsibility of Business Program. He thinks this is most likely a case of pollution from a specific substance that dissolves well in water.
The situation in Kamchatka is improving gradually, the governor stated. “Last week the maximum permissible concentration of oil products was exceeded several times over. [...] According to the samples taken from Lagernaya Bay on October 3, the maximum permissible concentrations for the presence of oil products were exceeded 7–9 fold. But over time the indicators have reduced significantly. The ocean has a unique self-cleaning ability. As of October 4, yesterday, samples only showed a 1.2 fold excess. At other points, all of the indicators are within sanitary limits. Including at Khalaktyrsky beach, [where] there are no excess indicators,” said the regional head.
The Environment Ministry doesn’t consider what happened in Kamchatka a large-scale disaster, because “not a single person died [and] not a single person was injured,” said the agency’s head, Dmitry Kobylkin. The Kamchatka Krai’s authorities stated that since the beginning of September only nine people (eight adults and one child) have sought help from government clinics for “burning eyes.” Some of these patients also complained of vomiting and throat aches (the surfers who were the first to sound the alarm over the water pollution off the coast of Kamchatka listed similar symptoms). Kobylkin said that he was aware of victims of corneal burns, but noted that “these [cases] are being treated with drops [and] solutions, it’s not such a severe burn.”
The materials from the inquiry into the reports of pollution in Kamchatka’s coastal waters have been transferred to the Investigative Committee’s central office. The agency’s Kamchatka branch began this check on October 3. The Kamchatka Krai Prosecutor’s Office has also organized its own inquiry. In turn, Russia’s Federal Fishery Agency (Rosprybolovstvo) has launched an administrative case concerning violations of the rules governing economic activity in response to the incident.
Translation by Eilish Hart