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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Komi Spill: Fighting Against the Thaw

USINSK, Far North -- Russian workers, unpaid for months, are battling against time and the elements to prevent further environmental damage from last year's big oil spill in the far north Komi region.

The spill, contained by a thick winter carpet of snow and ice, threatens to pollute rivers further when they start flowing in spring through the tundra to the Barents Sea.

Excavators with oil-blackened steel claws are making slow progress in clean-up work, digging up clods of oil and earth and loading them on to heavy trucks.

"We are working on the clean-up but there is not enough money," Sergei Kuznetsov, manager of the local oil company Usinsktermneft, told reporters visiting the region, about 1,500 kilometers north of Moscow.

Estimates for the size of the spill vary from 14,000 to 300,000 tons, although some of the higher figures include oil that may have spilled before leaks worsened in autumn.

The Environment Ministry puts it at between 90,000 and 120,000 tons -- more than twice as much as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

"It's not so important how much was spilled," Kuznetsov said. "The main thing is that oil products do not get into the water. Then we can clean up the isolated sections.

"The main problem is lack of resources to pay for work that has already been done."

Many workers have not received salaries since September. "People are working out of sheer enthusiasm," a company driver said.

The situation should improve shortly. The World Bank has agreed to provide a loan of $100 million to help the clean-up and the Russian Fuel and Energy Ministry has offered $12 million to meet pressing needs.

Kuznetsov, who is also deputy head of the Komineft oil company, stressed the importance of preventing oil from getting into the river system, although some already has.

The badly corroded pipeline, more than 20 years old, is owned by Komineft, a subsidiary of KomiTEK. It was closed on Feb. 1 when a new parallel line was brought on stream. In the clean-up process, some of the spilled oil, after being gathered, filtered and heated, is now being pumped into the new line.

Kuznetsov said Australian Emergency Services had been chosen as the contractor for the World Bank-funded clean-up.

He said a Canadian company, AGRA, would carry out a study on the accident and offer advise on the operation. The Canadian government has also offered a grant of $1 million.

The true impact of the leak will only become clear when deep snows finally melt. At the moment, the landscape looks fairly typical for a Russian oil-producing region in winter -- a vast, frozen expanse dotted with "nodding donkey" wells, gas flares and piles of rusting equipment.

Locals say the tundra is still rich in wildlife, from bears to reindeer and foxes, and fishing is a livelihood for some, but animals tend to steer well clear of the oil facilities.

Kuznetsov said one section of the 69 hectares polluted by last autumn's spill had been cleaned completely. Another six sections remained to be dealt with. Official figures showed 16.2 hectares had been cleaned up so far, while another 29 hectares had been contained. The remaining area should be either cleaned up or contained by April 16.

Special filters were being installed in rivers and streams. "We are forming a river fleet with special equipment. Various chemical methods will also be used to clear oil from the surface of water," Kuznetsov said.

The spill, described as "average" by Russian oil industry officials, highlighted the dilapidated state of some of Russia's pipelines, although state pipeline operator Transneft has defended the trunk lines it is responsible for.

A recent official estimate put annual losses through spills at as much as 3 million tons, compared with total output last year of about 315 million tons. One Moscow-based Western oil expert said he had heard reports of 20,000 leaks a year throughout the Russian system.