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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Oil Leaks Put Drinking Water in Danger

Tens of thousands of tons of oil seep into soil in the Moscow region every year, and at the current rate the region might be left without fresh water within a decade, the Natural Resources Ministry said Monday.

The city of Moscow, however, should not be affected because its water supply comes from the Moscow River, whose intakes are located on higher ground than the industries that are contaminating the soil, the ministry said.

Natural Resources Ministry official Alexander Reitlinger said the threat to the region's water supply comes from linzas, deposits 10 to 15 meters deep where petroleum products have accumulated after being trapped between porous soil above and nonporous clay below.

The contamination is the result of leakage from decrepit storage facilities and pipelines over the past 20 to 30 years. But the problem threatens to grow because up to 37,000 tons of oil continue to leak into the soil every year, Reitlinger said.

What worries the ministry is the linzas have begun to penetrate the Moscow region's underground water supplies, which account for most of the area's fresh water.

"The problem is serious," Reitlinger said. "If the underground water supply is poisoned, the Moscow region will be left without fresh water within the next decade because 81 percent of its water is taken from underground water streams."

The rest of the region's water comes from rivers.

The ministry ordered eight companies -- mainly fuel stations for the major Moscow airports -- to tackle the problem last week.

Moscow region residents and companies have aggravated the situation by not filling in fresh-water wells after abandoning them, Reitlinger said. Oil bottled up in linzas has burst through the walls of some wells and poisoned large deposits of fresh water, he said.

The ministry said in a report that deep-soil contamination has been found at more than 80 locations around the region. There are also 13 sites within the Moscow city limits, Izvestia reported Monday.

In Moscow, the earth under the Moscow refinery and the Moskvich car plant are among the most contaminated, Reitlinger said. But he said the Moscow areas have not been closely examined "because the ecological department has only been set up recently."

He said a Moscow review was planned sometime in the future.

The ministry report found that the worst leakage in the Moscow region was at the Chkalovsky and Kubinka military airports, Reitlinger said.

The report also listed land used by fuel companies at the Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo and Vnukovo airports, an oil storage facility in Istra, and property where 38- to 77-year-old fuel storage tanks belonging to Universal-Neft and Nefto-Service are buried.

The report did not determine how much oil has seeped into the ground.

"We gave all these enterprises a warning recently," Reitlinger said. "If they don't deal with the problem, we will have to shut them down."

He said the ministry understood that resolving the problem would be a costly venture and that the companies involved lacked the funds to do so themselves.

Airport fuel companies said they had been looking into the matter even before the Natural Resources Ministry gave them the recent warning.

Semyon Volfzon, head of the aviation fuel committee of the Russian Airports Association, said a special meeting of more than 40 association members was called on Aug. 8 to tackle the issue.

"We have been dealing with it for the past five years [at Vnukovo]," said Volfzon, deputy director of the fuel complex at Vnukovo Airport. "We have fixed 11 fuel tanks out of the existing 15 and, I think, we have fixed about 80 percent of the problem.

"We took out the contaminated soil, dumped it at special sites and put in drainage systems. It cost a lot of money."

He would not say how much had been spent or how much might be needed to resolve the problem.

Reitlinger said the Natural Resources Ministry also has no figures.

A Domodedovo spokeswoman said the airport had not received a warning and any leakage on its land was minimal.

Sheremetyevo officials could not immediately comment.

Nikolai Frolov, spokesman for Moscow Oil Co., a major shareholder in the Moscow refinery, said the ground under the plant was not as contaminated as the ministry believed.

"Probably some leakage does exist, but it is not big and we don't see a problem here," he said. "We grow roses and cucumbers on our grounds and have our own wells, but our water is fine."

Moskvich officials were unavailable for comment.

Navy spokesman Vladimir Bekhter said his superiors last week ordered Chkalovsky Airport to clean up its grounds.

"The situation there is terrible," Bekhter said. "The airport has leakage at its underground fuel storage facilities, and some people living nearby have fuel leaking into their basements."