AN Arctic dusk settled in the afternoon over the Palnik-Shor creek as workers struggled with sticks, shovels, and a makeshift boom to scrape a thick crust of gray-brown oil sludge from the surface of the freezing water.
Twenty miles downstream in the village of Kolva, deputy mayor Irina Yesimova sniffed the heavy smell of crude oil in the cold air and looked with despair at the ravaged riverbank below her home. It had been torn up by bulldozers clearing away pollution and leaving a snowy wilderness.
``That was grass before,'' she said. ``It will take three years to grow back, and what are our cows going to eat in the meantime?''
While initial fears that the oil spilled recently from a Russian Arctic pipeline would create an international ecological catastrophe now appear unfounded, tens - possibly hundreds - of thousands of barrels of oil have soaked into the marshy tundra around this remote creek 12 miles south of the Arctic Circle, admit officials of the Russian company that operates the pipeline, Komineft. And crude that swept into local rivers has coated their banks for at least 30 miles, they acknowledge.
If early US estimates that two million barrels of oil had escaped from the pipeline appear highly exaggerated, interviews with Komineft officials, local residents, and oil-field workers paint a picture of consistently gross neglect for the environment by the pipeline operator.
That attitude, environmentalists say, is typical of the blatant disregard for nature that the Russian oil-and-gas industry has traditionally shown. Most of the industry's operations are located in the sparsely inhabited far north and Siberia, and the extent of pollution, hidden by the former Communist regime, is only now coming to light through incidents such as this one.
The latest in a series of accidents on the Usinsk pipe, which runs from northern oil fields to refineries in central Russia, occurred here on Aug. 12, according to Komineft's deputy director, Nikolai Ponamaryov, when two leaks were noticed.
But the company continued to pump oil at full pressure for two weeks, and only stopped pumping completely to allow week-long repairs on Sept. 6, by Komineft President Valentin Leonidov's own admission.
By that time, tens of thousands of barrels of oil had flooded the surrounding marshes and crept into creeks. Komineft officials estimate that 84,000 barrels escaped.
Local environmentalists say they have no way of judging that figure, because snow now covers the site of the disaster.
But since the 29-inch pipe's capacity is only 120,000 barrels (20,000 tons) a day ``the leak must have been tens of thousands of tons, not hundreds of thousands,'' says Ivan Khudyakov, chairman of the Usinsk branch of the Movement to Save the Pechora, an environmental action group.
The oil accumulated in the marshes and creeks behind a dam on the Palnik-Shor creek, until heavy rains on Sept. 27 raised the water levels, and the oil floating on top of the water flooded over the dam, down the creek to the Kolva River.
That river runs into the Usa, a tributary of the Pechora River, which eventually feeds into the Arctic Ocean.
Although Komineft officials insist their analyses show no undue levels of oil in the Pechora, fishermen in Mutni Materik, 125 miles down river from the Kolva, have recently found tar balls in their nets, according to Alexander Gabov, a teacher in the town, which is 435 miles from the sea.
And although the bulk of the heavy oil that coated the Kolva and Usa Rivers has now been recovered, it will be months until all the polluted soil around the site of the leak is gone, even if removing it all proves possible. ``By April or May of next year, all the pollution will be cleaned up,'' Mr. Leonidov promised.
The lack of concern for the environment, illustrated by the decision to keep pumping even after leaks were found, is typical of Komineft, say local residents.
``They have leaks all the time, and they have been concealing it for a long time,'' charged Yevgeny Rochev, a journalist on the local Usinsk Nov newspaper who covers oil affairs.
There were more than 600 leaks on the pipeline in 1991, up from 51 accidents in 1986, according to Komineft figures that an employee leaked to the Ecologicheskii Vestnik, a magazine published by the Movement to Defend the Pechora.
Black ice floes
Every spring, when snow melt carries polluted water over the dams, ``you see the black ice floes coming down the Kolva, '' according to Mr. Khudyakov, who is an oil man himself, as well as an environmentalist.
Komineft admits that it has ``constantly had problems '' with the line in question, in Leonidov's words. As a result, the former state-owned firm, now a joint-stock company in which foreign investors hold 21 percent of the shares, is building a 32-mile bypass pipe around the troublesome stretch, officials say, which should be ready by December.
Komineft is also building a completely new pipeline - due to be finished by the end of 1995 - to replace the current one, built in 1975 and corroded beyond repair.
The new pipeline should mean an end to the fires that Komineft workers set routinely as the standard way of getting rid of spilled oil.
Those fires burn the oil, but they also burn all the surrounding vegetation.
It is little wonder, says Mr. Rochev, the local journalist, that ``pasturage for the reindeer, who used to feed all the way from the sea to Usinsk, has been dramatically reduced since the oil industry came.''
The reindeers' welfare was never one of Leonidov's top priorities when he ran Komineft as a Soviet bureaucrat, but new market realities might oblige him to pay more attention to them, suggests one foreign businessman dealing with Komineft.
The value of the company's shares has fallen significantly on exchanges worldwide since news of the oil spill broke.
``If their stock price goes down far enough'' as a result of the bad publicity, says the businessman, ``maybe they'll do something about it.''