Mop-Up of Giant Oil Spill Lags

Delays hit cleanup of eco-disaster in Russia's Arctic

WORKERS racing to clean up one of the world's worst oil spills near this remote sub-Arctic town are running out of time as the short northern summer draws to a close.

Though earthen dams and rubber booms protect the local rivers from further pollution from last year's spill, swaths of once-virgin tundra and forest are still coated with a thick crust of brown-black crude.

"I've never seen a project of this size with so many difficulties anywhere," said Ed Owens, a Canadian environmentalist working with the clean-up team. "With so many different sites and so large an area, this is a very major project."

Estimates of how much oil poured into the creeks and soaked into the peat bog vary widely, but they range as high as two million barrels - eight times as much as spilled from the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

Officials at Komineft, the oil company that operates the burst pipeline, had promised when they began to recover the spilled oil last October that the job would be over by May this year. But by May the real work of clearing up the mess had only just begun, and only with the spring thaw did the full magnitude of the spill become clear.

Oil leaked over a period of several months from 14 different holes in a 19-mile stretch of badly maintained pipeline, contaminating 170 acres of land.

Now, just weeks away from the winter frosts that will end significant work for this year, officials with AES-Hartec, the US-Australian joint venture in charge of the clean-up, insist that they will have finished the job by Sept. 24, their self-imposed deadline.

With crews working around the clock at two of the worst affected sites, "I have every confidence that we are going to meet the deadline, that we will have the gross mobile oil that could contaminate the area removed," said Bill Stillings, Hartec's project manager.

That confidence, however, is hard to share when surveying mile after mile of fouled creek banks that have yet to be cleaned, lakes of oil that are almost inaccessible to recovery crews, and acres of bog that must be hosed down foot by painstaking foot.

Hartec officials say they have completed 65 percent of their work, but as company president Bert Hartley acknowledged, while the worst of the pollution can be removed relatively quickly by mechanical means, finishing the process is much slower.

Mr. Hartley appealed urgently three weeks ago for another 700 workers to more than double his work force, saying he needed the extra men to finish the job "in a manner that meets our standards." But few new hands signed on, and Hartley says he is now resigned to managing with his existing crews.

Komineft's Chief Engineer Yuri Baidikov says this means it will be important to maintain dams that protected the Kolva River last spring, "in order to contain oil that may not be recovered" by the time Hartec packs up.

Hartec, an Alaska-based company specializing in Arctic environment oil spills, was hired by Komineft at the suggestion of the World Bank, which has loaned the money for the $45 million operation.

Many of the company's experts worked on the Exxon Valdez spill. All of them say they have never seen anything like the damage done here. The size of the spill, and the variety of terrain that has been covered in oil, make it especially difficult to clean up, they say.

In forested areas, men have had to wade into the muck with chain saws and weed-eaters to cut down all the trees and brush before fitting out airboats from the Louisiana swamps with makeshift bulldozer scoops and pushing the oil toward pumps.

Along creeks clotted with oily sludge, men in white disposable coveralls are posted every few yards aiming water hoses at the crust, trying to force it downstream toward more pumps. Then they turn their hoses on the banks.

In open bog, more men with hoses are patiently flushing out the oil that has soaked into the peat, draining it into trenches and off into storage areas.

At every site, dikes, dams and levees - built from tens of thousands of tons of sand gouged out of newly dug pits - hold the oil in shallow lakes, and prevent it from seeping into the rivers that eventually flow into the Barents Sea.

Even where the crews have finished their work, they have left oil behind them. This is partly because of a lack of time, Hartley explained. "Some banks will be dark," he conceded. "They won't be a threat to the Kolva River, but they won't look the way the [inspecting] agencies would want to see them."

It is also partly because too much cleaning up can damage the roots of the bushes and grasses, Hartec's environmental consultants have warned. "We feel it would do more harm than benefit to remove the remaining oil," said Mr. Stillings, pointing to oil-stained bank of Palnik Shor Creek, which is as clean as his team plans to get it.

And at the mouth of No Name Creek, where it meets the Kolva, Stillings' approach appears justified. Ten weeks after the spot was cleaned, patches of oil are still visible. But they are nearly covered by healthy new grass shoots, and the silver birch trees are in full leaf even though their trunks are coated with oil to above head height.

The major unanswered question now is what will be done with the oil that has been recovered and that lies in storage trenches dug into the tundra.

Komineft officials say they will reinject it into the pipeline, but Hartec experts say efforts to do that have so far failed because the oil is so full of sand, leaves, twigs and debris.

Mr. Hartley described the cleanup as "an important first step in demonstrating to the world that Russia is actually environmentally responsible." Whether Komineft finds a way of disposing of its trenchfuls of oil, or whether it simply forgets about them when the world stops caring, will illustrate how far Hartley's optimism is justified.

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