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Shocking oil spill scenes from Siberia: but is there a way to a cleaner future?

By Olga Gertcyk
21 July 2015

Or is it too expensive to put the environment before the need for energy?

There are rivers and lakes of oil, frequently in some of the remotest and inaccessible places. Picture: Liza Udilova

These disturbing pollution cases show the toll suffered by Siberia as one of the world's foremost oil producing regions on which our nation's health and economic well-being depends.

Shot over a number of years, these haunting images show the damage to wildlife and nature from oil spills often resulting from the rupture of old pipelines. There are rivers and lakes of oil, frequently in some of the remotest and inaccessible places. 

Greenpeace Russia's volunteers have worked  to highlight the problem, and here the organisations offers its solutions to avoiding such scenes deadly scenes in future. 

We run this story after recent weeks have seen a serious oil spill - and one that seemed hard to halt, never mind clean up - in the energy city of Nefteyugansk. In this case, oil gushed into floodwater of the Ob River, the seventh largest in the world. 

Oil spill in Nizhnevartovsk


Oil spill in Nizhnevartovsk


Oil spill in Nizhnevartovsk


Oil spill in Nizhnevartovsk


Oil spill in Nizhnevartovsk

Serious oil spill occured just a few weeks ago in the energy city of Nefteyugansk and then Nizhnevartovsk. Pictures: N1

People were evacuated from their homes, pets smeared in oil, and contaminated water ran from domestic taps. This was followed by another leakage at Nizhnevartovsk, with the sudden appearance of a lake of oil.

Evgenia Belyakova, Arctic project coordinator for Greenpeace Russia, spoke about the issue, highlighting that even the scale of the problem - necessary to understand to plot solutions - is hard to measure yet she suspects the country is wasting through spills as much as one per cent of its entire precious output.

'Oil is a toxic chemical substance,' she says. 'According to Russia's regulations, it is a toxic substance that belongs to the third class of toxic elements, the first being the most toxic. Although oil doesn't fall into the latter category, it requires special permissions and licenses to be obtained to work with it. 

'Once oil gets into the environment, it starts interacting with living organisms and causes functional problems. Basically, it destroys the biocoenosis (interacting organisms living together in a habitat). Although oil companies argue that oil spills are not that dangerous and show images of some plants growing, that is not the case with a fresh spills. 

'Only extremely resistant plants, and a very limited number of them, can grow in contaminated areas, and that's not happening in a couple of years after the spill. Reptiles, insects and small animals die almost immediately. Birds and mammals try to avoid poisoned areas but that's not always possible. 

Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia

'Once oil gets into the environment, it starts interacting with living organisms and causes functional problems.' Pictures: Vadim Kantor, Denis Sinyakov, 

'For example, birds can't tell a normal water surface from the one covered with oil products. Local residents, indigenous population of Western Siberia often complain that oil contamination affects fish, the amount and range of fish shrinks dramatically. 

'Only certain types of fish can survive in such water. It stinks. Locals actually continually poison themselves because quite often they drink contaminated water. Accidentally, deer have mishaps and end up in an oil spill, let's say, during roaming. They start experiencing certain health problems. 

Yet, she argues, there is 'absolutely no official data collected at federal level, so there can only be expert estimates based on various sources. 

'Nonetheless, the numbers are overwhelming and are at the very least as high as one per cent of Russia's oil output. There is no regular monitoring.  The most affected areas are Western Siberia (notable Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and Nenets Autonomous Okrug) and Komi. 

(It is not in Siberia) but 'there is a settlement in Komi called Kolva, where local residents insisted on regular water checks, but the probes were sent to Syktyvkar and the residents were told that everything is fine, although none of them has actually seen a paper with the results of the probe'. 

In other words, she believes 'state control isn't sufficient and there is no public accountability over government control and monitoring agencies".

Greenpeace would like to see more incentives, in the form of sanctions, to pressure the oil companies to pay more attention to the huge impact of pollution in areas such as Siberia.

Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia

'Nonetheless, the numbers are overwhelming and are at the very least as high as one per cent of Russia's oil output. Pictures: Liza Udilova, Vadim Kantor 

'There is no single formula to estimate the damage,' she says. 'Relevant authorities use complex formula to calculate the fines to be paid. They take into consideration what sort of territory was contaminated, if waters have also been affected, if so, what sort of water reservoir it was and such things. 

'Nonetheless, there are quite a few ways for a company to handle the situation, and there is always a way around. For example, there is such thing as measures to support business which basically mean that a company cannot be penalised more than once. That means that a company is either paying a fine (seen as low compared to the cost of the damage) or cleans up the mess. 

'If the latter happens, the company needs to design a recultivation project for cleaning up and reviving the territory. They can do it within the company or hire other organisations to do that. But sometimes the government end up reimbursing the company's 'extra' expenses if the latter calculates that the damage caused is less than the cost of the clean-up project.  And such things actually happened. 

'The problem is that oil companies have no economic reasons to avoid oil spills. There are no mechanisms to stimulate companies to prevent oil spills. Legal mechanisms do not work effectively so we need stricter regulations.'

Behind the ecological damage is one overriding factor, she says. 'The main reason for oil spills is outdated pipelines. These are thousands and thousands of kilometres of old tubes. No one can be bothered to replace them. However, it is estimated that average profitability of Russian oil companies is 15%, net profit is about one trillion roubles.

'Replacing every single pipeline in the country would cost 1.3 trillion roubles and could be done in five years if the companies cut their net profit by 25 per cent a year, given the sanctions, low oil prices and other political and economical circumstances.'

Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia

'The main reason for oil spills is outdated pipelines. These are thousands and thousands of kilometres of old tubes. No one can be bothered to replace them.' Pictures: Denis Sinyakov, Vadim Kantor 

Ms Belyakova also questions the way 'recultivation' happens after a spill clean-up.

'Recovery of the territory is something that happens or is supposed to happen after cleaning up the territory where an oil spill happened. It is supposed that the territory needs to be put in a state that matches its purpose. One of the main issues is that oil spills often happen in hard-to-reach areas for heavy equipment - tundra and forest-tundra. 

'The regulations actually allow the company not to clean up the contaminated area if there is risk of losing heavy equipment, which is often used as an excuse.

'Another side of the problem is that often the composition of the land has changed, as the most popular way of cleaning up the territory is lowering the concentration of toxic substances. That is often achieved with sand brought from some wells and thrown onto contaminated areas. This way, the soil has a different profile and oil products stay covered there. 

'This is another thing to keep in mind when speaking about recovery of the lands. If there are crops growing on the 'cleaned' area, this area is considered 'recovered' and the damage is viewed as eliminated. However, once the roots of plants reach the level of soil still contaminated, they stop growing and die.'

Greenpeace Russia began working here in the early 2000s on the Samotlor deposit in KhMAO, 'where a whole lake was destroyed because of exploration activities'.

Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia


Oil spills in Siberia

The Greenpeace images show oil spills, pipelines ruptures, destroyed landscapes and gas flares at Pravdinskoe oil field of Rosneft company near Surgut, Khanty-Mansi region, West Siberia; a Rosneft oil spill near Surgut, and other Siberian spills. Pictures: Liza Udilova, Vadim Kantor

She recalls: 'There was a positive trend in the area, the amount of oil spills was decreasing for a few years after the project was completed. At least, according to statistics. The next project on oil spills started in 2011 as a sub-project within the Arctic project.'

She alleges:  'Oil producers are totally ignorant about the adverse effects of oil production and related risks. There have been certain changes on the government level, the president Vladimir Putin and high-ranking officials in relevant agencies do acknowledge the problem and consider our recommendations. 

'For example, our concerns were addressed in a sea-protection law which requires a very considerable allowance to be created by an oil company in case of accidents during production. The dialogue is very slow and is strongly affected by oil lobby. Such dramatic accidents when a whole city is affected by it - not a few dozens of people living in tundra and who no one cares about - can help to attract attention to it and facilitate the dialogue.'

The Greenpeace images show oil spills, pipelines ruptures, destroyed landscapes and gas flares at Pravdinskoe oil field of Rosneft company near Surgut, Khanty-Mansi region, West Siberia; a Rosneft oil spill near Surgut, and other Siberian spills.

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Comments (5)

My 11 year old grand-daughter and I watched the unbelievably beautiful documentary called "Happy People" about life in the Taiga with extra scenes such as following spring from southern Siberia to the north. We were both smitten and awed at the beauty of the landscape, flowers, birds, animals, way of life , etc.... Then, I called my grand-daughter in to view what I was looking at on the computer. We were virtually in tears to see that what we just watched was virtually no more. OIL spills, forest destruction , and no life visable from oil spills and oil exploration in the Taiga. Is nothing sacred? Why are we allowing fossil fuel capitalism to destroy this planet for all our grandchildren and those yet to be born?
Ron Teska, Belleville, USA
02/02/2017 19:20
1
2
Seems pretty typical for Putin.
Putin Fail, US
26/01/2016 03:23
6
0
ah Greenpeace - nothing short of a mafia group, and where have they been when The BP polluted the ocean? Siberia is ok, because the place is way larger than the spills which, in fact, amount only to small puddles if compared to the rest of it.
sharik, moscow, russia
27/07/2015 16:10
1
17
Mr. Putin, you have the power to change this destruction, please, make a few calls - I wish the President would hear this.
Tanya Doyle, Canada
26/07/2015 11:20
14
0
It is so bad to see wats going on in Sibiria. If you have a Mind and a Hard for our Planet, don`t look for many more money. , look for save ouer earth.
It is for the children
Sabine Gröppel, Germany
25/07/2015 04:42
17
0
1

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