Russian and American officials are still trying to determine exactly how much oil has spilled from a leaking pipeline near the Russian Arctic coast. Estimates range from just over 100,000 barrels, the figure offered by Russian industry officials, to more than 2 million barrels, which U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy William H. White cited as the more likely figure. The latter is some eight times the size of the spill created when the Exxon Valdez ran aground off Alaska in 1989. This would make the Russian spill one of the worst environmental disasters of its type in history.
Whatever the precise figure, it is clear that the Russian oil industry is plagued by many of the problems that led to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster. The lesson of that tragic episode was that the nuclear industry of the former Soviet Union was permeated by an atmosphere of corruption and patronage that made some sort of catastrophic failure virtually inevitable. The fundamental cause of the Chernobyl episode was less a failure of technology than a consequence of the suppression under Soviet rule of a scientific culture of openness and professionalism that might have averted disaster.
Though communism is dead, its institutionalized inefficiencies live on in many Russian industries. Historically, both the nuclear and petroleum industries developed in a climate of secrecy justified by military necessity. Both were run by able, determined and ruthless managers who held little regard for human life or what their enterprises were doing to Planet Earth. Construction work for both was done largely by slave laborers of the Gulag. The terrible environmental mess left by both industries is the painful legacy of this history.
No wonder Russian officials are trying to minimize the extent of the spill and its potential environmental damage. The pipeline apparently had been leaking since 1988, but officials patched it and, when that failed, jury-rigged a dam to contain the spillover. When that dam burst Oct. 1, officials tried to cover up the disaster -- as they did at Chernobyl -- rather than admit failure by appealing to the world community for help.
Now the Russians assure outsiders the spill hasn't reached the Pechora River, which empties into the Arctic Ocean and would spread oil along thousands of miles of coastline. Don't bet on it. The official reaction is all too typical of the pattern of denial that used to absolve major failures under communism. It may be months before we know the full extent of this disaster. But already things looks very bad indeed.