Russia oil leak from a decommissioned well wreaks devastation

5 million tons of Russian oil spill every year, creating an environmental disaster.

5 million tons of Russian oil spill every year, creating an environmental disaster.

Originally published on Boston.com

USINSK, Russia—On the bright yellow tundra outside this oil town near the Arctic Circle, a pitch-black pool of crude stretches toward the horizon. The source: a decommissioned well whose rusty screws ooze with oil, viscous like jam.

This is the face of Russia’s oil country, a sprawling, inhospitable zone that experts say represents the world’s worst ecological oil catastrophe.

Environmentalists estimate at least 1 percent of Russia’s annual oil production, or 5 million tons, is spilled every year. That is equivalent to one Deepwater Horizon-scale leak about every two months. Crumbling infrastructure and a harsh climate combine to spell disaster in the world’s largest oil producer, responsible for 13 percent of global output.

Oil, stubbornly seeping through rusty pipelines and old wells, contaminates soil, kills all plants that grow on it and destroys habitats for mammals and birds. Half a million tons every year get into rivers that flow into the Arctic Ocean, the government says, upsetting the delicate environmental balance in those waters.

It’s part of a legacy of environmental tragedy that has plagued Russia and the countries of its former Soviet empire for decades, from the nuclear horrors of Chernobyl in Ukraine to lethal chemical waste in the Russian city of Dzerzhinsk and paper mill pollution seeping into Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which holds one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water.

Oil spills in Russia are less dramatic than disasters in the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea, more the result of a drip-drip of leaked crude than a sudden explosion. But they’re more numerous than in any other oil-producing nation including insurgency-hit Nigeria, and combined they spill far more than anywhere else in the world, scientists say.

“Oil and oil products get spilled literally every day,” said Dr. Grigory Barenboim, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Water Problems.

No hard figures on the scope of oil spills in Russia are available, but Greenpeace estimates that at least 5 million tons leak every year in a country producing about 500 million tons a year.

Dr. Irina Ivshina, of the government-financed Institute of the Environment and Genetics of Microorganisms, supports the 5 million ton estimate, as does the World Wildlife Fund.

The figure is derived from two sources: Russian state-funded research that shows 10-15 percent of Russian oil leakage enters rivers; and a 2010 report commissioned by the Natural Resources Ministry that shows nearly 500,000 tons slips into northern Russian rivers every year and flow into the Arctic.

The estimate is considered conservative: The Russian Economic Development Ministry in a report last year estimated spills at up to 20 million tons per year.

That astonishing number, for which the ministry offered no elaboration, appears to be based partly on the fact most small leaks in Russia go unreported. Under Russian law, leaks of less than 8 tons are classified only as “incidents” and carry no penalties.

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