On May 26, oil began flowing down the Kolva River through Komi Indigenous land in Northern Russia. For a week now the oil has been coating the river and building up on the banks, with no reaction from Rusvietpetro, the joint venture company of VietPetro and Zarubezhneft, a state-controlled Russian oil company, and no cleanup being organised by the company or even the local authorities.
There has not been a word to the communities about how they will clean up the spill, not a word to their investors that the spill is even happening, and almost zero coverage by local and national media. And now the oil has reached the Pechora River, which flows into the Arctic Ocean.
Greenpeace Russia obtained photos from allies at the Save the Pechora Committee, an organisation that is on the ground there now, documenting the spill and the Komi Indigenous Peoples who are being forced to clean it up themselves. They have no idea how much oil has already spilled into their waterways, but based on the number of barrels they’ve filled already and the amount of oil left, they estimate it at 100 tonnes, or roughly 730 barrels.
The local residents contacted the authorities for answers but they did nothing to address the residents’ fears. Instead it took until May 28 for a public meeting to be held between residents, regional representative of the Ministry of Natural Resources and local government officials.
The meeting was not to announce the administration’s plan to deal with this oil spill that was endangering the health and drinking supply of the local people — instead, the Head of Usinsk District, Alexander Tian, announced to the residents “If you do not want to breath in oil fumes, you should take a boat out and remove the oil yourself!” According to one resident who was there, he then offered 10,000 rubles per barrel of oil that people collected (approximately 250 euros).
And so the local people and their children ventured out into the toxic rivers in their own small boats to clean the collected oil from the river with their own hands. Many of them had barely anything to protect themselves from the oil; images collected by a local activist show everyone and everything is covered, and some even handled the oil with bare hands.
Then when they began to deliver barrels full of the spilled oil, they say the company refused to pay them. Their strange excuse was that the oil the residents had brought did not belong to the company identified as responsible for the accident, Rusvietpetro, but belonged to Lukoil, another company that operates in the area. Finally yesterday the company relented, and began to pay the locals for the oil they recovered.
While all this went on, the administration continued to pretend as if everything was fine and Rusvietpetro did not react at all. When asked about the response to the accident, the administration claimed that an oil boom and sandbags were in place and the accident was being dealt with. But the oil boom placed on the Kolva River was only 15 meters long and the river can reach between 100 and 200 meters in width. Local activists took photographs of the sandbags, sitting useless in piles along the banks of the river.
Despite the administration’s insistence that it was responding appropriately, oil continued to flow down the Kolva River for 100 kilometres, eventually reaching the Pechora River and contaminating a further 70 kilometres of this river, which flows north, carrying this sub-Arctic oil mess back up towards the Arctic Ocean.
Local state and regional media in Russia are not free to disclose details of the situation. According to one journalist working there, they received a specific order not to report on this incident, and the administration itself only made a public statement after pressure from residents and Greenpeace Russia. If it weren’t for local activists and residents documenting the accident and sharing information with Greenpeace Russia and others, it’s possible that no one would know this was happening. This is the standard operating procedure for oil companies like Rusvietpetro in remote regions of Russia like Komi — spill and ignore.
Compared to famous oil disasters like the Deepwater Horizon this is a relatively small spill and it is in an area that is accessible to cleanup crews (not that there are any). Despite this and the infrastructure available to authorities, they did nothing to stop this oil. It is still flowing. The local Komi people are still breathing the terrible fumes.
According to a local representative of the Ministry for Emergency Situations: “A mitigation plan for the oil spills has been put into operation, but we don’t have it. Ask Rusvietpetro [the company, blamed for the oil spill] for it. We asked the local people to clean the oil, since they have small boats that can operate in shallow waters.” Rusvietpetro remains silent.
This incident shows clearly how impotent the local and particularly foreign companies are to address any accident that occurs as the result of a joint venture. And as oil companies prospect for weaker regulations in Russia, joint ventures in the area — like the spills — are become increasingly popular.
What makes this even scarier is that Zarubezhneft, the company that controls 51% of Rusvietpetro, can be awarded licenses to drill in the Russian Arctic according to Russian legislation. There are only two other companies who have this right — Rosneft and Gazprom. On June 3, as Rusvietpetro’s oil continued to flow down the Kolva, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources commented that this company could very soon receive license to drill in the Arctic, specifically in the Barents Sea.
If Rusvietpetro and the Russian authorities can’t deal with or don’t wish to deal with even this comparatively small accident on shore, it’s scary to imagine how they will deal with an accident in the Russian Arctic, hundreds of miles away from civilization and in dangerous conditions of ice and Arctic storms.
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