When a reactor exploded at Ukraine’s Chernobyl power station in April, 1986, Soviet officials said nothing at first—and then sought to play down the significance of what turned out to be the world’s worst nuclear accident. Eight years later, with a huge oil spill threatening Russia’s fragile Arctic northland, not much has changed: post-Soviet bureaucrats still reflexively cover up and deny when facing environmental disasters.
Russia’s latest pollution problem began in mid-August, with massive leakage from a deteriorating pipeline in the northeastern region of Komi. But officials of KomiNeft, the recently privatized company operating the pipeline, did not inform Moscow, 1,600 km to the south. As oil leaked from up to 23 new holes in the 52-kmlong line, KomiNeft and joint production ventures involving such Western companies as Calgary-based Gulf Canada Resources Ltd., continued to pump oil through the broken pipe.
Despite that rupture, oil company representatives and regional officials continued to maintain a wall of silence around the spill. Officials in Moscow claimed that they first heard about the problem early last month. Eventually, Western news reports touched off a furious round of speculation, accusation and denial within the country concerning the handling of the spill. In Moscow, Environment Minister Viktor DanilovDanilyan was one of the many officials who declined offers of international aid while denouncing foreign news coverage. DanilovDanilyan said that, considering the size of the breaks in the pipeline, the estimate of 2.1 million ban-els is greatly exaggerated.
Amid arguments over the threat posed by the oil mess, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been particularly critical of KomiArcticOil, a joint venture with KomiNeft, Gulf Canada and British Gas that continued to send about 11,200 barrels of oil—eight per cent of normal daily production—through the broken pipeline. Said Greenpeace spokesman Paul Horsman: “If Western firms are extracting oil and making a profit from it, then they have a responsibility for using safe pipelines.”
But KomiArcticOil’s director, Yevgeny Leskin, disclosed another reason for gambling that an earth dam would be an adequate defence against further pollution. In an interview with a local newspaper shortly before the dam collapsed, Leskin said that a pipeline shutdown would have caused his firm to lose its place on the world market. That is a now-familiar explanation for oil mishaps in Russia, a country that relies on the hard-currency revenue that energy exports bring—and one that, according to industry experts, loses up to 10 per cent of its oil production to pipeline leaks.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.