A ruptured pipeline in the Russian Arctic has spilled 80 million gallons of hot oil, soaking the fragile permafrost and posing potentially major environmental damage to the region, according reports received by the federal Department of Energy.
William H. White, the deputy secretary of energy, said yesterday that the pipeline leak was months old, but that a dam that was jury-rigged by a Russian oil company to contain the leaking oil apparently burst in the last several days. He said that American industry officials in the remote Komi region of the Arctic reported that the spill had reached a tributary of the Pechora River, near the city of Usinsk, which in warmer months pours into the Arctic Ocean. The spill is continuing to advance, he said.
An American oil industry representative said that the oil that has burst through the dam, and is flowing to the tributary of the Pechora, was more than three feet deep, six to seven miles long, and 14 yards wide.
The volume of the spill is roughly eight times the amount spilled when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska in 1989, but the actual magnitude of the damage will be difficult to determine until more information is available.
"Our people are contacting officials within the Russian Ministry of Fuel and Energy, and there have been discussions between other Russian government officials and a private American firm about obtaining the assistance of an American firm to help remedy the situation," said Mr. White.
While its sheer size suggested that it could amount to one of the largest spills ever, several environmental experts said on yesterday that it was difficult to characterize just how great the environmental threat was without more details. Mr. White said that the department expected to have videotape of the spill soon.
An official with an American energy company involved in Russia said last night that the source of the spill was a leaking 26-inch pipeline that had at least seven holes in it averaging two inches in diameter. That same pipeline has at least 27 existing patches indicating that the Russian operator of the pipeline, Kominft, had made repeated efforts to repair the pipeline only to have it spring other leaks, said the official.