A MAJOR oil spill threatening the fragile Arctic ecosystem went almost unnoticed in Russia for three weeks because officials saw it as too routine an accident to bother with, according to an oil industry spokesman here.
``This event is nothing out of the ordinary,'' says Yuri Nogotkov, spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Fuel and Energy. ``You would be astonished to hear the number of accidents that happen every year on Russian pipelines.''
Many people were indeed astonished. News of the oil leak surfaced when US Deputy Energy Secretary Bill White told the New York Times that as much as 80 million gallons of crude oil had flooded into two rivers near the remote Russian town of Usinsk, 600 miles northeast of Moscow.
Since then Moscow has been put on the defensive, insisting that the spill is a fraction of the estimated size and rejecting environmentalists' concerns that it would affect the Pechora River, which empties into the Barents Sea near rich fishing grounds.
The original United States estimate would make the spill nearly eight times as big as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the biggest-ever North American oil spill.
Komineft, the Russian oil company that owns the pipeline, says only 3.6 million gallons polluted the tundra and rivers. ``Everything is under control now,'' Komineft spokesman Valery Ilyin said Wednesday, adding that the leak had been plugged and cleanup work almost finished.
An earthen dike, built in August to hold back oil leaking from a 2.5 mile stretch of worn-out pipe, burst in heavy rain on Oct. 1, Russian officials say.
The reservoir of oil soaked 26 square miles of tundra, according to the Ministry of Emergency Situations.
But nobody in Russia said anything about the disaster, because it was regarded as unexceptional.
The most recent pipeline accident to attract public attention occurred Feb. 9, when a pipe burst 260 miles south of Moscow, spilling about 800,000 gallons of oil that formed a 17 acre lake.
But out of the public eye ``there are about 400,000 small- or medium-sized accidents every year on Russian pipelines,'' said Mr. Nogotkov, the Energy Ministry spokesman. ``Total annual losses from spills come to 500,000 tons on lines from wellheads, and 1 million tons on other major lines.''
Oil spills are so common, he explains, because Russia's underfunded oil industry does not adequately maintain its pipelines.
``There is rust, there are bad valves, joints come unwelded, and some pipelines are so worn-out they come apart the whole length of the line when [oil pumping] pressure is increased,'' he admits.
Now that the Usinsk spill has attracted international attention, some Russian officials are acknowledging that even if the lowest estimates of the size of the accident prove correct, ``this is still a substantial figure,'' in the words of Yevgeny Minayev, head of the Fuel and Energy Ministry's ecology department.
The Environment Ministry has also taken notice. ``This is potentially a very dangerous accident for the environment,'' press chief Alexander Shuval said yesterday. A team of Russian experts has flown to the area, though officials say their investigation has been hampered by snowstorms.
But Mr. Minayev claims his ministry ``did not know of the size of the accident until the information appeared in the Western press,'' when Mr. White, quoting US oil workers near Usinsk, first mentioned the incident publicly.
News did not get out, Minayev said, because local authorities in the autonomous Komi republic decided to deal with the accident themselves, and did not report it.
The accident has alarmed environmentalists because the Arctic ecology is particularly fragile, and as the harsh winter sets in, cleanup work will be impossible. It is still unclear if the Pechora River is polluted, thus threatening Arctic fisheries.
But pollution is not a major issue in Russia, where ``people are still in industrial consciousness,'' as Nogotkov put it.
``Russia has not reached the degree of public awareness where ordinary people are concerned with ecological issues,'' he said. ``If the oil hasn't spilled on them, they don't care.''