People in the small village of Kolva first noticed the oil slicks discolouring the nearby river of the same name on May 11. Horrified, they took out their phones to capture videos of oil-covered chunks of ice floating along.
Kolva is located in a part of northwest Russia known as the Republic of Komi. The indigenous Komi people make up about one quarter of the population in this region.
Petrol company Lukoil announced on May 17 that 100 tonnes of oil had leaked from one of its pipelines. Nine of these tonnes flowed into the Kolva River.
Three weeks later, as teams from Lukoil and local volunteers were working to clean up the spill, Russian teacher Ekaterina Diachkova discovered a new leak. Diachkova, who lives in the nearby village of Novikbozh, noticed a greyish liquid pooling in a forest stream on May 26. She posted a video of the stream on the Russian social media site Vkontakte. The footage shows Diachkova taking a sample of the water to analyse.
Diachkova then walked up the stream and discovered that the greyish liquid was coming from an oil well. Someone had placed a barrel over the defective well in an attempt to prevent it from spraying all over the ground.
‘If you look hard enough, you’ll always find a leak’
Diachkova is a member of the Pechora Rescue Committee, an organisation that has been working on local environmental issues for the past 30 years. Diachkova, who has also served as an elected member of the State Council of the Republic of Komi for the past two years, has long tried to raise awareness of ecological issues in the region.
It’s been a long time since anyone has drunk the water from the river, even though that’s what we did traditionally. The quality of the water that comes out of the taps in our village is also poor and there are often high concentrations of iron and manganese in it. Even though Lukoil installed a water treatment plant, we haven’t seen any differences in water quality yet.
The oil wells are really old and no one pays much attention to them. We think there should be a ban on drilling from pipelines that are more than 20 years old, because they leak all the time. If you look hard enough, you’ll always find a leak.
Lukoil offers us small condolences, like building playgrounds or saunas. Do you know how many saunas you’d need to wash off this filth? Aside from clean air and water, we don’t need anything. We just need an environment where we can live peacefully.
‘For the people who make a living from fishing or hunting, this pollution is catastrophic’
Ivan Ivanov is the president of the Pechora Rescue Committee. He said that the livelihoods of a large number of people in the region depend on the natural environment.
If they aren’t already retired, the people living in nearby villages either work in the petrol industry or make a living from fishing, hunting or gathering berries and mushrooms in the forest. For them, this pollution is catastrophic.
Farming and livestock raising is difficult in this region. The fields have been flooded by water polluted with oil. It’s dangerous for livestock, who sometimes get poisoned and fall sick or die. The cows who eat this polluted grass then give milk that locals will drink.
On May 31, the attorney general of the Republic of Komis opened criminal proceedings into the May 11 oil spill.
The region’s Ministry of Natural Resources confirmed that the second leak of oil-containing liquid occurred on May 27. The federal office overseeing the environment, however, said that this second leak did not come from a pipeline. Lukoil claimed that what occurred was just a natural phenomenon causing sand, water and rock to rise to the surface. Experts quoted in an article by RG.ru claimed that “this natural phenomenon isn’t a threat to the environment because the rock isn’t very toxic.”
This is far from the first time that an oil spill has affected the region. In 1994, Komi experienced one of the worst catastrophes in Russian history, when tens of thousands of tonnes of oil spilled into rivers and spread across the tundra. From 2013 to 2015, there was another series of spills – this time, smaller – and still more took place last fall.