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Clean-up of the oil spill on the Kolva River in Usinsk. May 14, 2021.

Another environmental disaster Russia’s Komi Republic declares emergency after 90-ton oil spill

Source: Meduza
Clean-up of the oil spill on the Kolva River in Usinsk. May 14, 2021.
Clean-up of the oil spill on the Kolva River in Usinsk. May 14, 2021.
Komi Republic’s Press Service / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Authorities in Russia’s far-northern Komi Republic have declared an emergency over a 90-ton oil spill affecting local soil and waterways. The leak originated from a Lukoil pipeline located in the neighboring Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Reportedly, most of the oil products have pooled on the shore of the Kolva River, however the pollution is continuing to spread into larger waterways and is moving towards the Barents sea. Local environmental activists say the spill already constitutes an environmental disaster and has likely caused hundreds of millions of rubles in damage.

On May 11, reports emerged about an oil leak originating from a Lukoil pipeline located near Russia’s Kolva River. According to the authorities in the Komi Republic, the source of the leak was located further north in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug, near the border with the republic’s town of Usinsk. 

Initial estimates said that the spill involved six to seven tons of fuel. However, on May 16, Lukoil’s subsidiary — Lukoil-Komi — admitted that 90 tons of oil had spread into local soil and waterways. “The leak occurred at a distance of about 300 meters (984 feet) from the coastline of the Kolva River. Therefore, the bulk of the oil-derived liquid [...] spread into the soil, mainly occupying a natural lowland close to the leak,” stated the Usink city administration, which declared an emergency regime on May 12 due to the incident.

According to the city authorities, nine tons of oil spread into the Kolva’s waters before cleanup began. The team of liquidators included 230 Lukoil employees and contractors, who used more than 70 pieces of equipment — including boom and sorbents — to neutralize the petroleum products for disposal.

The next day, regional investigators announced the launch of a criminal probe into the potential “violation of the rules for environmental protection during the performance of works” (Russian Criminal Code article 146). That same day, local residents noticed black ice on the Kolva River and a strong smell of oil in the surrounding area, environmental activists from Greenpeace Russia reported

Video footage of the Kolva River filmed in the Komi Republic on May 12

After visiting the site of the accident on May 13, the Head of the Komi Republic, Vladimir Uyba, said that around seven tons of oil had already been gathered from Kolva River. However, he also said that the cleanup could go on for “two weeks or even three.”

By May 14, the pollution had reached the Usa River, which the Kolva feeds into, the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported, citing local residents. “The ice drift is strong, so hardly any booms were set up. More precisely, they set them up but they held back little,” a local resident woman Ekaterina Dyakova told the newspaper. 

Footage of the pollution in the Kolva River as it reached the village of Kolva (Komi Republic)

On May 15, environmental activist Alexander Sladkoshtiev — from the Save Pechora Committee — told the independent television network Dozhd that the oil had travelled 180 to 200 kilometers (112–124 miles) downstream and begun polluting the waters of two larger rivers — the Usa and the Pechora. 

According to Sladkoshtiev, due to the deterioration of the oil pipeline and the absence of an automatic mechanism that could have turned off the oil supply immediately after the accident, fuel was ejected out of the pipe and into the water under high pressure for six hours. As a result, the polluted area exceeded 12,000 square kilometers (or 4,633 square miles). Most of the oil settled on the banks of the Kolva River, Sladkoshtiev said. 

By May 16, oil had reached the village of Charkabozh on Pechora River, the Save Pechora Committee wrote on VKontakte, citing messages from local residents. “Everything that’s being done in the Komi Republic is extremely insufficient in terms of preventing the spread of this oil pollution. Despite the assurances from the republic’s leadership, headed by Uyba, this oil continues to spill — from the Kolva it poured into the Usa, and now it’s spilling along the Pechora River. And the Pechora district’s villages are under threat of oil pollution,” Komi State Council deputy Oleg Mikhailov confirmed to Ekho Moskva. 

Sladkoshtiev believes that the environmental damage “will amount to hundreds of millions of rubles.” In his opinion, the oil leak already constitutes an environmental disaster. 

Both Sladkoshtiev and Mihailov underscored that the Komi Republic sees oil spills caused by worn-out pipelines on a regular basis. According to Novaya Gazeta, the last oil leak into the Kolva River took place just seven months ago, in October 2020. This spill also prompted the Usink authorities to declare an emergency.

One of Russia’s largest-ever environmental disasters took place in Norilsk, Krasnoyarsk krai, in May 2020. Approximately 21,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked out of a damaged reservoir at a power plant belonging to a Nornickel subsidiary, spreading into nearby rivers and the surrounding soil. A Russian court ordered Nornickel to pay a record-breaking 146.2 billion-ruble ($1.98-billion) fine over the resulting environmental damage. 

Story by Pyotr Lokhov

Translated by Eilish Hart

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