Our researchers just discovered a very dangerous collision in the Russian Arctic. Last week, a tanker that was not built for freezing waters was 'holed' by an ice floe and had to wait for seven days for help. Yep — holed, as in its hull was punctured, like the Titanic in 1912. And yes, seven days — during which a diesel spill would have been left to gush into the icy water pretty much unchecked. Luckily it looks like none has leaked out, and the ship is still afloat.
The ship was in the the Northern Sea Route, an area full of wildlife which is controlled by Russian authorities. According to this news story the ice floe punctured one of the ballast tanks and the vessel started taking in water. The damaged tanker was temporarily patched up but was left drifting in the Arctic waiting for assistance. A rescue vessel, Boris Vilkitskiy, has now arrived to try to offload the nearly 5,000 tons of diesel on board.
There's more. Embarrassingly for the Russian authorities (and alarmingly for the rest of us) the Nordvik slipped into the Arctic with the wrong permit. It wasn't strong enough for the ice conditions that are common in the Northern Sea Route.
The irony here is that Greenpeace's icebreaker, the Arctic Sunrise, was recently refused entry to the Northern Sea Route. Our ship easily meets the technical requirements and this decision looked like an attempt to stifle peaceful protest and shelter the oil companies from international attention — so we sailed in. The Russian coast guard appeared out of nowhere, before boarding our ship and ordering us out of the area under the threat of fire.
So... just days after Russian authorities kicked our peaceful protest ship out of the area, a commercial tanker which was highly unsafe hit an icebreaker miles away from any Coast Guard vessels. What are the priorities of the Russian authorities when it comes to patrolling the fragile, melting Northern Sea Route?
So far we've escaped disaster, but this dangerous collision is a trial run for something much more serious and the Russian response has failed miserably. As a patched-up tanker ends its week-long wait for assistance, this incident symbolises the recklessness that rules the waves in the Russian Arctic.
Elena Polisano is an Arctic Campaign Officer for Greenpeace International