It’s late in the evening, but the sun has not yet settled here in Usinsk in the northernmost part of Russia where my Russian colleague and I arrived in a storming blizzard a few days ago.
Located just at the border of the Arctic, Usinsk is the oil capital of Russia’s Komi Republic and even though the city has a meagre size, the oil industry’s influence is unfortunately far from meagre.
Usinsk is located close to a basin of rivers, which were once full of life. But this was before oil was discovered back in the 1970s and today the picture is completely different. The area has turned into a dystopia, where smoke from burning oil and gas flares paint the horizon.
Flaring — besides emitting massive amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere — is releasing a wide range of toxins into the environment and is known to cause cancer. The Russian government promised back in 2007 that it would stop the use of gas flaring (at the time Russia was responsible for more than 25 percent of all flaring in the world).
Apparently this is not the case in Komi. The threshold for when flaring poses a health risk is several thousand times less than the threshold from which the chemicals from the burning can be smelled. Today I drove for more than half an hour through an area where we could barely breathe due to the distinct, foul smell from the flaring. I can still taste it even now.
But flaring is far from the only problem. Today, there is no control of the oil industry and its safety measures. The oil pipelines are left to corrode and the never-ending repairs are happening at an excruciatingly slow pace. This means oil spills are a weekly, it not daily event.
We also visited Kolva, one of the local villages in the area. Here the locals told us about their everyday life and how it has been affected by the oil industry. They named the village after the river, which the village is located next to. The Kolva River used to be the villagers’ source for fresh water and food. They used to be able to drink the water directly from the river and the fish used to be plentiful. Today the river is more known for transporting ice painted black by the oil. In fact, oil slicks cover almost the entire surface.
The days when the locals could drink the water are long gone and there are hardly any fish left. But when asked about the worst consequences of the pollution, the villagers don’t even mention their own situation. No, the worst consequences were for the villages further downstream. As they don’t have any wells, they don’t have any other choice than to drink the water from the river. As a result, the cancer rates in those villages have gone through the roof.
While in Usinsk, I also did some research on the official numbers of spills and the findings revealed why the situation is so grim. While there are no isolated figures for the Komi region, the Russian Minister for Nature estimated in April that about 300-500 million litres of oil are leaked into the Arctic through Russia’s rivers every year.
Let’s put that in context.
We all remember the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe, when the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, killing 11 people and causing a staggering 780 million liters of oil to leak unchecked into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill was America’s worst environmental disaster and caused long-term damage to the delicate ecology of the Gulf region. The terrible photographs and videos of oiled seabirds and turtles illustrated the true cost of extreme oil.
But in Russia each year up to 500 million liters of oil leaks into the river systems that feed the Arctic Ocean. In other words, although the BP oil spill was an isolated incident, the same amount of oil that wrecked the Gulf coast spews from Russian oil fields into the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean every 18 months.
But unless you live in this region, or have visited it yourself, it’s unlikely that you’d ever know such incredible environmental destruction was happening so regularly.
This is the hidden story of Russia’s Arctic nightmare.
As a Greenpeace campaigner, I’m used to confronting and being confronted with the challenges and problems our world is facing. Over time I might even have toughened up a bit, so the almost daily doses of destruction and ongoing indifference to the world we live in didn’t break my back or my spirit.
But this is one of the times, where I have to admit that I’m not able to keep a personal distance. Even as I write this, I feel guilty as my words sound hollow compared to what we are seeing here. I honestly don’t know if it is too late to save this once beautiful area, but I know that if we don’t act now — here and in the rest of the Arctic — what I’m witnessing will only be the tip of the iceberg.
Jon Burgwald is a Greenpeace Nordic Arctic campaigner