Major Gas Find Taints Tundra, Threatening Reindeer Herds

The Russian city of Nadym looks like most cities built across this vast land during the Soviet era: a massive collection of drab, high-rise buildings. Known as the "gas capital of Russia," Nadym is a company town of 50,000 built after gas was discovered in the region 25 years ago.

The increased development naturally had an impact on various groups native to the region, including the Nenets. But the Yamal peninsula was spared - until a few years ago, when one of the world's largest natural gas deposits was discovered here.

Now, thousands of workers are constructing a road and railway up the eastern side of the Yamal, preparing to build a gas pipeline which officials hope will go online by 2005.

For several years now, Nenets herders have complained their deer are getting smaller and sicker. Various scientists think they know why.

"The tundra is the kind of environment where a single vehicle's track will remain for decades," says Bruce Forbes, an American ecologist who has spent three years studying the Yamal ecosystem.

"Our tests show that just the soot from the trucks and bulldozers has covered the nearby lichens and changed the chemistry of the area."

The Nenets also say the animals often get hurt stepping on the huge amounts of rusting debris left scattered about near the gas field and new road. Oil workers have also been known to shoot reindeer and even to fish by throwing sticks of dynamite into lakes.

GAZPROM officials do not deny that gas development is having a negative impact, but blame much of the problem on lax environmental regulations during the Soviet era.

"We are now making every effort to minimize our presence in the area, but some things are difficult to deal with," says Vladimir Penkin, chief assistant to the company director. "Officially, the workers aren't allowed to have arms or kill any animals and fish. But it's impossible to always control them."

Penkin says that so far, the road construction is only affecting a relatively small part of the flat peninsula. However, he does foresee a day when other roads will crisscross the entire region, while insisting that "gas and reindeer can learn to live together."

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