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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oil Brings Dollars, But Damages Environment

USINSK, Northern Russia -- The crude oil and salty water surging out of a borehole and through small, badly maintained pipelines across the wetlands of the Arctic are a matter of life and death for the region's people.

The pipelines meet the nation's desperate need to reap oil dollars from the corners of its sprawling land mass and are part of an industry that feeds and clothes thousands in this desolate region, some 1,500 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

But they also rust, split and seep oil into the soil and toward rivers in which native Komi people hunt for poisoned fish, environmentalists say.

Ecologists say this is the daily scenario in Komi and throughout the world's largest country, which lacks both the money and will to invest in new infrastructure or clean up old oil spills adequately.

Poor technical standards, an absence of stringent watchdogs and the nation's historic treatment of natural resources as endless only make the problem worse, they say.

Local oil companies deny these charges, saying they take their ecological responsibilities seriously and are working to replace old pipelines.

The environmental group Greenpeace estimates that 15 million metric tons of crude oil leak out of the nation's huge pipeline system every year f the equivalent of 375 tanker accidents the size of that involving the Exxon Valdez, which sank off Alaska in 1989, spilling 240,000 barrels of crude oil into unpolluted waters.

Near Usinsk, a remote town surrounded by marshy pine forest and rusting nodding donkeys, lies the site of one of the world's worst pipeline breaks. In 1994, a main north-south pipeline burst in dozens of places, spilling an estimated 150,000 tons of crude oil.

Swathes of land are still covered in sweet smelling viscous oil that workers in white overalls laboriously slop into metal containers. Cleaning up in such an inhospitable place is hampered by severe frost that lasts nine months of the year.

"It's a mammoth task," said Greenpeace Germany campaigner Christian Bussau. "Just look around you," he said, gesturing at a marsh the size of a football field in which an old electricity pylon was slowly subsiding into an oily mess.

Bussau said that Western oil companies refine Russian oil in modern refineries in Germany but pay no heed to how it is handled before it reaches them. Greenpeace was lobbying them to ask their Russian partners to improve environmental standards.

Spilt oil not only destroys flora and fauna but can leech into the groundwater and cause cancer and other diseases.

Doctors in Usinsk said there was no proof this had happened in Komi, but no proper studies had been carried out.

Oil collected from spill sites ends up in large open-air pits. It is then meant to be refined and sent back down the pipeline system. Orange flames and a pall of black smoke trailing across the sky show that this is not always the case.

Sergei Smagin, chief inspector at the state technical standards agency Gosgortekhnadzor, said such incidents were rare.

"That's illegal. It's probably hooligans, well, oil hooligans. It's not common practice," he said.

But he acknowledged that most of the "field pipelines" f small lines that lead to bigger, better maintained ones f were rusting and in need of replacement.

The company controlling the biggest and oldest network in Komi, the nation's No. 1 oil firm LUKoil, which bought up local oil producer KomiTEK last year, had started updating the network by swapping out 20 percent of pipelines, Smagin said.

Local officials from LUKoil were not available for comment, but the local newspaper Usinskaya Nov quoted the president of KomiTEK, Vladimir Zarubezhnov, as saying the company's principle aim was to react quickly to any spills.

"Not one drop of oil should end up in the river," he said. "I will take personal responsibility for every ecological violation."

Before the firm's arrival, Usinsk was dying and oil output diminishing, undermining the point of a huge Soviet sign on an apartment block: "More Usinsk oil for the Motherland!"

LUKoil has announced plans to develop oil and gas fields further north and build a sea terminal to export crude.

The arrival of LUKoil transformed Usinsk: Workers received their wages on time, pay levels went up and unemployment went down.

Residents refer to the firm as "the new landlord," and its red and white logo is the only piece of advertising in the town.

Men identifying themselves as LUKoil security guards spent a day following a car carrying foreign reporters.

The guards blocked roads leading away from the main road, preventing journalists from looking at some oil spill sites. They also attempted to prevent them from taking photographs or speaking to workers.

In Kolva, a small village near Usinsk, fishermen said they now caught far fewer fish than before the 1994 spill. Cheslava Stanislavovna, the village head, said that Kolva had had problems but oil firms had installed water-monitoring equipment.

She said that a 1997 study showed a slight increase in kidney and lung disorders among Kolva's children compared to a control group of children from Usinsk, although there was no proven link to oil.

Tatyana Novoskoltseva, head of the Usinsk branch of the State Committee for the Environment, said policing environmental standards was tough with only four staff, and she was also not sure how much longer she would have a job.

President Vladimir Putin has thrown the future of her agency into question by saying it will be merged with the Natural Resources Ministry, which licenses resource exploitation and, campaigners say, has no interest in environmental protection.

Novoskoltseva said there were 400 hectares still drenched in oil in Komi and cited LUKoil plans to clean up 126 hectares this year. Greenpeace Russia says they have obtained official figures putting the damage at 700 hectares.

But protecting the environment is never going to be the top priority of a town where most people are in some way employed in the oil industry and where the mayor, Felix Markov, says 95 percent of his budget came from oil firm taxes.