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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oilmen 'Refused' to Close Leaky Pipes

Russian and Western oil producers and the city officials of Usinsk chose to ignore warnings and keep pumping oil through a leaking pipeline in Russia's Far North, just days before a major rupture that caused thousands of tons to pour into the tundra, officials said Thursday.

In late August, at least 14 leaks were discovered in a major pipeline near Usinsk, an oil town 2,000 kilometers northeast of Moscow. Officials flying over the region counted seven oil lakes along the pipeline, some spanning over 20,000 square meters.

Deputy mayor Anatoly Zinovyev said Thursday that he and eight oil companies that use the pipeline met and considered an immediate shutdown. Instead, he and oil executives agreed to keep pumping oil until construction of a bypass pipeline was finished on Sept. 6.

But on Sept. 5, oil poured out of a major leak near the Palnik-Shor creek. It is the oil from this leak, officials say, that burst through earth dams during heavy rains in late September and poured into the Kolva river, polluting at least 50 kilometers of river banks and spilling into the salmon-rich Pechora river.

While officials at the KomiNeft oil company that runs the pipeline insist that only 14,000 tons of oil leaked and only 2,000 tons reached the river, American oil executives have given estimates of up to 270,000 tons. A Moscow Times investigation found that oil poured into the Kolva from at least four creeks, not just one, but witnesses said the spill into the Palnik-Shor was the worst.

Looking back, however, Zinovyev said that an immediate shutdown in late August "would have been much worse."

Many of the wells pump heavy oil that would congeal in the drilling pipes, he said, making repairs extremely expensive. Zinovyev said he agreed to keep pumping because the city heating plant uses gas condensate, which is also pumped through the pipeline. Some KomiNeft officials have accused other oil companies of actively refusing to stop pumping.

Boris Meshchenyov, deputy head of the production department of Komi-Neft's branch in Usinsk, said his company shut down 22 wells on Aug. 26 and asked the other companies using the pipeline to stop production as well.

"They all refused," he said in an interview. "If they had responded there would not have been any more leaks."

Meshchenyov's allegation, backed by two other local officials, puts part of the blame for the environmental disaster on Western oil companies using the pipeline, particularly KomiArcticOil, a joint venture of KomiNeft, British Gas and Gulf Canada. "KomiArcticOil was the first to refuse," Meshchenyov said.

KomiArctic Oil pumps about 2,000 tons of oil a day through the pipe, about 8 percent of the total volume, which it sells abroad.

The director of the joint venture, Yegeny Leskin, declined to comment, but shortly before the Sept. 5 leak he was quoted in the local newspaper Usinskaya Nov as saying that his firm would "lose its place on the world market" if the oil flow were disrupted.

Gennady Zaripov, general director of the KomiOil firm that also pumps oil through the pipe, said Wednesday that he had opposed a shutdown, but denied he had refused outright.

"How can I refuse?" he said. "It's their pipeline. They could shut it down anytime." KomiOil instead agreed to reduce its supply of oil, Zaripov said, shutting down some wells before halting operations altogether on Sept. 6.

Greenpeace activists visiting Usinsk have used the spill to criticize Western oil companies for polluting Russian soil.

"They do have a responsibility," said Paul Horsman, who heads the organization's worldwide campaign against oil pollution. "If they are extracting oil and making profit from it, they are responsible for using safe pipelines. They would not get away with using leaking pipelines in Europe."

Michael Stevens, general director for British Gas in Moscow, countered that "It would not be economically viable to invest if we had to take responsibility for past pollution."