Oil Mountain Causes Ecological Disaster in Russian Village

River of oil and unbearable stench ruin the ecology of a small village
April 16th is a remarkable date: On this day, oil was first extracted on the territory of the Priakmye region 74 years ago in Russia. The same day, albeit in the year 1997, an emergency occurred at the oil enterprise LUKoil-PermNeft in which petroleum products flowed into the Turayevka river.

The Turayevka is a unique river. It is on the list of natural treasures of Russian national significance, since the river flows through a mountain twice on its way to another river. The mountain through which the river flows contains caverns. Apparently, petroleum products of "unknown origin" have filled those caverns. When water rises in spring, oil flows right into the river, which causes an unbearable stench in the neighboring area, particularly in the village of Pavlovo.

One can stand the stench during the daytime. Local citizens are used to the hydrocarbon smell, and they say that they do not pay any attention to it in the daytime. However, when the weather calms in the evening, an oil fog covers the whole village. Adults suffer from headaches and high blood pressure, children have nosebleeds and domestic animals simply die.

Residents of the village tell the tragicomic story of a cow that drank some water from the Turayevka river and then the cow's milk became undrinkable. They had to kill the animal for meat, but no one agreed to buy the meat anyway.

Pavlovo village residents are certain: The company LUKoil-PermNeft is guilty for all their troubles. The deep mountainous gully in which the village is situated is surrounded with Kukuisky oil deposit oil wells on every side. The distance between the village and the oil wells is only 360 meters.

The village is 200 years old. It has always had clean air and pure water, and no petroleum products were ever discharged into the Turayevka river from any mountains. The ecological catastrophe in the village of Pavlovo happened because of LUKoil-PermNeft's activity. Yet, it seems that the disaster took place because of a unique combination of natural and manmade factors. Soil starts moving every spring, and oil pipelines burst every spring too. To all appearances, LUKoil-PermNeft is not going to conceal this obvious fact. Aleksey Cherepanov, the chief of the company's environmental department, said that there were 20 ecological incidents registered on the oil-extraction territory over the past year. The company did not hide any of them, but informed all the necessary departments about them instead. However, in April of 1997, there were no breakdowns registered in oil infrastructure around the village of Pavlovo. No incidents were registered in April of 2002 either, when the situation was repeated. Tanks of oil were taken out of the Turayevka river on both of those occasions, and all the oil wells and pipelines were working as usual.

It is too late now to find out from where petroleum products made their way through the soil to accumulate inside the mountain and when it happened. It is clear that it is not a matter of natural hydrocarbon accumulation: It is not pure oil that flows from the mountain into the river, but a terrible blend of oil and reagents, including hydrochloric acid, that are used for the production of oil. When the water in the river turns "salty," as village residents put it, it is hard to keep the cows away from it, for they like everything salty. Yet, no one knows where the stench comes from.

Aleksey Cherepanov, the chief of the environmental department of the oil company, says that the source of the unbearable smell is in the water. Yet, they do not know what kind of source it is exactly. Mr. Cherepanov added that the department have spent five million rubles on clean-up of the ecological disaster in the village of Pavlovo. Specialists examined the mountain with the use of electronic equipment and drilled a vertical well into the mountain, but they did not find any cavities. The company also set up oil catchers on the river to take the oil out of the water and make it flow into special tanks. However, oil catchers add more problems for the village, since they pollute the air even more.

This year, LUKoil-PermNeft is going to continue struggling with the mysterious mountain: Another electronic exploration to conduct and another well to drill (a horizontal one this time). Probably, it will be possible to find the cavity and cleanse it of petroleum products. The company will also replace pipelines around the village, although everything seems to be fine with them. New, modern pipes will minimize the risk of bursting.

However, the village residents want to have clean air and water back. They want to get rid of LUKoil. Yet, no one else is dealing with the problems of the mountain in the village of Pavlovo. If LUKoil stops its activities in the area and leaves the village alone, people will have to face everything themselves, for the problem will not leave together with the company. In addition, the company is implementing a program to shut down neighboring wells: Most likely, the company's wells in the area of the village will be shut down in the coming five years, so, the company will have to leave the territory sooner or later anyway.

Doctors have recently examined local residents. Nineteen children had increased levels of phenol in their blood, as well as increased levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. There are only 50 houses in the village, which makes everyone wonder why the people are still there, if the situation is so serious. Not all of the Pavlovo residents want to leave their homes and go: 50 percent of the village population does not want to move at all.

There is an open pit two kilometers from the village: A selenite deposit - the only one in the whole world. Before WWII, the local stone-cutting company used to ship its production to 30 countries. Seven hundred people used to live in the village back in those days, and everyone was happy about their life. The climate of the mountainous landscape guaranteed magnificent harvests of every plant and tree.

The stone-cutting factory has not changed a bit since that time. Research has shown that the factory was not involved in the environmental pollution. It is the major enterprise in the village, where almost all village residents work, although the last time that they got their pay was in December - 500 rubles per worker (less than $20).

This seems to be really astonishing: If there were oil and a unique stone found in a foreign village, its residents would become millionaires. In Russia, just the opposite happens: Pavlovo village residents own neither stones nor oil. None of them work for LUKoil, and no one gets any compensation. The stone-cutting factory generates value to the sum of 500,000-600,000 rubles a month. The factory does not spend much – just on electricity, rock and wages. Where has the profit gone, then?

LUKoil-PermNeft is going to hold an ecological conference in May. It seems that the problem of the Pavlovo village will be one of the main issues for scientific discussions. Village residents are left to hope for the best.

Novy Kompanion

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Author`s name Michael Simpson