After a long summer of greasy labor, most of Russia’s worst oil spill has been cleaned up, and the rest has been contained so it will not wash into Arctic rivers next spring, officials said Wednesday.
“Basically, we are satisfied,” said Vadim P. Voronin of the World Bank, which is funding the cleanup project in Usinsk, about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow. As of this week, Voronin said, “about 72 percent of the work has been done.”
“Obviously, there will be some pollution left. But the gross oil will be removed,” he said. “The rest of the work must be done by nature itself.”
In an unexpected spinoff, the Russian oil company responsible for the Usinsk accident is now considering forming a joint venture with the U.S. company hired to mop up the mess to create Russia’s first oil-spill cleanup company, spokesmen for both companies said.
The developments are the first upbeat environmental news to come out of the befouled Russian Arctic since the summer of 1994, when a dilapidated oil pipeline ruptured in about a dozen places, gushing millions of gallons of hot crude oil into creeks and streams that feed the mighty Pechora River.
Experts are still arguing about how much oil really spilled, but the World Bank estimate is 100,000 tons - roughly three times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
By any measure, the Usinsk spill was one of the world’s largest.
Miles of streambed were covered with a yard-thick layer of congealed slime, and oil slicks made their way downstream to further damage the once-rich fishing grounds that stretch 450 miles down the Pechora to the Arctic Ocean.
Environmentalists say the delicate ecosystem will require decades, if not centuries, to recover.
The World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have lent a total of $124 million to deal with the damage: about $45 million to clean up the spill, $4.5 million to help the local farmers and fishermen whose livelihoods have been ruined by oil contamination, and the rest to build 60 miles of new oil pipeline and modernize the decaying infrastructure in the oil fields.
AES/Hartec, a U.S.-Australian joint venture hired to organize the cleanup, arrived in Russia on March 9. It now has 884 people working on the project, 93 percent of whom are Russian. Crews have been working around the clock at some of the most contaminated sites.