Serafima Varlamova stared at the empty bulldozer parked on the side of the sandy road cutting through the birch and pine forest of northern Sakhalin Island and cursed the missing driver.
“Drunk,” she said, scowling as she pushed back her camouflage hat. “We are looking at an ecological disaster in the wake of this human tragedy, and all anyone can think about is drinking vodka.”
Varlamova is head of a section on oceanographic research in the Russian ecology ministry. She is trying to bring official attention to a disaster parallel to the earthquake that killed more than half of the 3,200 residents of the small oil town of Neftegorsk on Sunday.
She is worried about the growing oil spill resulting from the leakage of 21,000 barrels of crude oil from the pipeline that runs 17 miles across the austere Sakhalin landscape from offshore fields in the Sea of Okhotsk to terminals in mainland Russia.
“The problem is that all the people who ran the pumping stations and knew the pipeline are dead, missing or so distressed that they can’t possibly work,” Varlamova said. “Neftegorsk was not just an oil town. It was a town created exactly to house those who worked in the industry. Now it - and they - are gone, and no one else seems to know what is where or what to do.”
Rescue work continued Friday, but at a lower scale. No survivors were found overnight, though a badly injured teenager was found Friday, along with 95 bodies. Workers concentrated on a single site, one of the prefabricated five-story apartment blocks that crumbled immediately in the earthquake.
The official toll so far is 866 bodies and 405 survivors recovered. Up to 2,000 people may have died.
The damage from the oil spill is not impressive as far as oil spills go. Blackish green petrochemical pools have collected in declivities along the line, marking the 18 different spots where the 11.8-inch diameter pipeline moved as much as 15 inches and snapped, while buried nearly 6 feet beneath the sandy surface.
The spill is now seeping into the Sakhalin natural drainage system and running into the rich salmon and crab grounds that surround the island.
More important to Varlamova is the attitude of many working in the oil sector, who continue to regard production as the paramount concern. “There is heavy pressure on us to reopen the pipeline immediately, without thoroughly checking it,” she said during a tour of the damaged line.