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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Komi Oil Cleanup Teams Ignore Further Leaks

USINSK, Far North -- While efforts continued Monday to clean up a major oil spill in Komi region, where a dam around a ruptured pipeline burst in September, oil continued to gush unchecked from another breach in the hastily constructed defenses, ignored by local officials.

Officials at the disaster site on the Kolva River, a major tributary to the Pechora, in Russia's arctic Komi region, were still insisting Monday that only one dam broke in late September, allowing oil that had gushed out of a pipeline in August to pour into the river.

While cleanup workers pumped thick, black sludge out of the Palnik-Shor creek, where officials say the only dam-break occurred, a stream of oil was gushing from a second creek into the Kolva, without a worker or official in sight.

The dam in the Palnik-Shor has been largely repaired, although oil is still seeping through. At the other creek, locals say a smaller spill has continued unabated since late September and a cleanup crew has yet to pay a visit.

Cleanup teams readily admit that their work is largely ineffectual.

Alexander Berezin, acting director of the Priroda Company that is cleaning up the spill near Palnik-Shor, said he could not afford proper equipment that would enable him to clean it all up and prevent oil from flowing through.

"Some of the oil is passing through, it's hard to say how much," he said as he stood near a tank full of reclaimed tar-like oil emulsions. "Our cleanup is very ineffective."

Berezin has no booms to restrain oil that spills through the dam and his pump is broken, leaving his 30-odd workers with little but shovels.

While Berezin said he had pumped out 880 tons from the creek, and would finish the initial cleanup soon, the bulk of the oil would be left to the spring floods. "It will be practically impossible to clean up in winter, it will all be covered by ice," he said.

Ever since The New York Times last week reported a giant oil spill in Russia's Far North, citing estimates by American oil executives of 270,000 tons, Komi officials have gone out of their way to keep a growing army of reporters from estimating the true extent of the accident.

Saturday and early Sunday, when a warm spell melted the snow and ice that had covered up the traces of the spill for days, the traffic police just outside Usinsk turned back reporters, citing violations of traffic rules.

Cars without reporters were let through unhindered and one oil executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had been told flat out not to show reporters around.

But oil experts in the region say that official estimates which put the size of the leak at around 14,000 tons could in fact be closer to the truth than the U.S. reports suggested.

The pipeline that leaked in August pumped a daily average of about 50,000 tons of oil emulsion, a mix of 20,000 tons of oil with water and various salts. Yevgeny Leskin, the director of the Canadian-British-Russian joint venture, KomiArcticOil, one of the users of the pipeline, said he had lost about 3,400 tons as a result of the spill.

Since he is suing the main operator of the pipeline, KomiNeft, for compensation, he had no reason to minimize his loss.

On that basis, a total of 40,000 tons of oil would have been lost from the pipeline over the same period

Leskin said that the simple calculation would overlook various margins of error such as inaccurate meters and the fluctuating oil content of the emulsion. "It could be as much as 60,000 tons, but not 270,000 tons," Leskin said.

Much of the spill, oil workers say, is still lying on the surface of the swamps and must be cleaned up before spring floods cause a second disaster.

The neglect of the dam is one indication of Russia's safety record in the oil business, the country's single-largest source of income but also one of its most troubled industries. In Komi, oil executives said they lack the funds to keep the pipeline in a safe condition because of low oil prices and high taxes.

In the village of Kolva, 40 kilometers downstream on the Kolva River, Pyotr Kanev and Nikolai Arteyev, both native Komi people, struggled to pull a motorboat ashore for the winter, their feet sliding over a layer of oil.

Kanev said he had first seen oil on the river bank on Sept. 28. Because Kolva was the worst hit by the spill it was the first, and so far only, location of a major cleanup operation that took more than two weeks and up to 300 workers a day.

Kanev said that further down the river, where the banks were less accessible, large quantities had been left untouched. "The cleanup is symbolic, to get us to stop complaining," Kanev grumbled. "They say we will get compensated. A little, maybe."