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Volume 32, Issue 1

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Learning from another country’s disasters may provide lessons to North American disaster planners today. A case in point - From August to September 1994, a series of massive oil pipeline leaks occurred in rural Northern Russia, nearly on the Arctic Circle. The nearest town to the major spill location was Usinsk, just 30 Km from the nearest spill area. The impact from the spills and outcomes of the resultant containment, cleanup and mitigation activities may be of interest and provide information for Disaster Recovery Journal readers -both for the lessons learned and for use in future planning. While the Russian pipeline leak may be unique for its sheer size - it provides North American agencies many examples and lessons. Smaller pipeline leaks occur regularly in North America, a response planner or provider must understand this type of technology accident.

What happened?

The oil spill, known as “The Usinsk Accident” has been reported as one of the worst in history, up to eight times greater than the EXXON VALDEZ. Only the 1991 post-war cleanup in the Middle East posed greater problems. In the KOMI spill, the local pipeline owner, KomiNeft (Komi Oil), local authorities and the Russian government initially tried to hide or obscure the extent of the spill. When oil appeared in the Barents Sea, the world community was forced to step in to control the extent of potential environmental damage.

The KOMI oil release has been estimated as high as 200,000 metric tons of oil, found at four major points over an 18 Km length of older pipeline. The pipeline, first placed in service in the early 70s, had been leaking for some time, with major leaks first noted as early as 1988.

Corrosion caused by oxygenated river water, which is mixed into the oil to assist in pumping, was deemed a major factor in the deterioration of the pipeline. Take the old Soviet environmental attitude, bad construction techniques and materials, then add the general societal chaos at the collapse of the old Communist system and you have a complete recipe for a ecological disaster.
Initial containment efforts, such as siphon dams built of sand, were poorly engineered and built and when the spring thaw hit in 1995, failed completely. Under increasing intense pressure from the world community, western technology and a very small number of American oil spill response workers were brought in under contract to provide both new cleanup technology and training on proven response techniques. The US Government and World Bank were active in addressing the spill by providing both funding and survey data.

Finally, to give you a better feel for the size of this event, the spill was large enough to be visible from space.

For more details visit the Internet, see the URLs found at the end of this article for some excellent sites.

How did I get involved? Before the spill, I had spent several years writing response, training and logistics support documents under contract, then later working for, an environmental company in Alaska. In April 1995 I was contacted by the company owner and offered a job on the spill response team as the plan writer and to provide photographic documentation. I resigned my position at the University of Alaska and traveled to Usinsk. Once at the job site, the required skill set turned out to be much more, with making maps, fixing gas samplers, setting up computers and printers and basic survey work as part of the total response effort. I found the challenge enjoyable.

Walking some 40 Km, I followed the soiled shores of the Kolva river and feeder streams, the inland spill sites and the length of the damaged section of the pipeline - photographing & surveying the damage. It is impossible to find words to fully describe the spill and the resultant impact to the tigara forest. I photographed the project, people, equipment and structures - producing over 3,000 map-indexed images. A project ecological science team on site generated additional index-photo work and documentation. Communication was provided by radios and reporters obtained from a Canadian oil company under a sub-contract. Some of the initial on site communication back to Alaska was via IMARSAT “p-phone” - these units really are worth their weight in gold for this type of operation - especially during the logistics ramp up.

The Kolva River Basin Response Project was deemed successful in as much it prevented further oil from reaching the Kolva, Usa and downstream rivers. Funds available and used for the project were on the order of 20 to 23 million USD, with the bulk of the project work done in two summers. The EXXON VALDEZ cleanup, in contrast, consumed some five thousand million (5Bn) US dollars over several years. The impact site in Alaska was larger by several orders of magnitude. The disparity in response funding levels reflects differences in government philosophy, location, physical and chemical characteristics of the oil itself and - frankly, the depth of the pockets of the pipeline company. Since KomiNeft was in technical bankruptcy at the time, funding was heavily dependent on sources outside of Russia. By the time I had arrived KomiNeft workers had been paid in script for over a year.

Terrestrial crude oil spills can be viewed as easier to access and control, with less impact from bad weather or access, compared to ocean tanker spills. On a spill of this size and located in the northern wilderness, nothing was easy. Temporary roads were laid out to the spill sites for construction of containment and collection infrastructure. In many cases the spill containment and cleanup cause at least as much damage as the initial oil contamination.

In the KOMI cleanup, large amounts of the oil was simply buried in “polygons” - large clay lined pits near major collection points. The realistic aim of the project was to keep the oil from migrating into the ocean. Management was done site by site with supervision provided locally.

The radio net was used primarily for safety and logistics calls.

I would note, that while the oil was bad for the environment, the larger impact to the fragile Arctic ecology may have been the weak brine mixed with the oil to ease pumping. The oil itself is a thick, heavy (high paraffin) type which must be heated to pump. Once the oil left the broken pipeline, it essentially froze in place - looking for all the world like huge slabs of black candle wax. Indeed, in many areas the oil was removed by backhoe. The summer heat would cause it to flow and many areas water from seasonal snow melt had carried oil high into the trees lining the impacted streams.

Impacts to the local area.

The area of the spill was both remote, thinly populated and very rural, in many ways like conditions found in much of Alaska. The initial spill reported called out an impact on some 67.5 hectares of tundra, then spring melt waters spread the oil. Scientists have established that, in total, about 2,110 hectares (1 hectare = 2.2 acres) of meadows and pastures, including reindeer grazing lands, were contaminated and in some villages up to 92% of all the grazing and fodder producing land was affected. Damage to rivers, pastures and meadows still seriously affects the well-being of the local residents who depend strongly on their vegetable plots, cattle, hunting and fishing for existence.

The economic impact and damage estimates were based on the officially adopted figure of 14,033 tons of oil. Overall damage was estimated at more than 311 billion Rubles (about 103 million USD). The officially confirmed estimation of 79,000 tons of spilled oil brings the cost of the damage to well over1.5 trillion Rubles (495.7 billion USD).

The difference in estimate size of spill , from under 15K tons to the high end of 102K to 200K tons, is the difference between Russian, KOMI official estimates and measurements made by the US EPA and Canadian environmental specialists.

In contrast, the TransAlaska Pipeline System (TAPS) has operated during the same time frame as the KomiNeft system in a similar environment with small spills, measured in barrels rather than tons. Both were quickly contained, cleaned up and restoration work initiated. Strict oversight and regulation provide the difference in the outcome.

Of interest to disaster planners and response teams.

Not all pipelines carry oil or natural gas. Pipelines that carry oil may also carry associated hydrocarbon products. Gas pipelines may carry a wide range of products.

Communication is a prime worry in response and containment activities. Response planners must account for the inevitable EMI/RFI and incompatibility issues that arise from too many radios and too few frequencies. Work in or around littoral or coastal areas brings the additional headache of coordinating marine and safety frequency usage. Pre-planning and drills in your area of responsibility will help - but you must experience the incredible congestion to fully understand the frustration of users.

In addition, you need to plan for:

1. The sheer number of people who respond for containment, cleanup and mitigation activities. You may not be able to find a hotel/motel room for miles around your site. The rental car scene will be chaotic as will any public transportation systems. This has been described as a ‘flood’ of humanity - in the Russian example, several thousand people showed at the gate of the project office seeking jobs. In the Alaskan spill response, US Navy ships were moored in the area to provide housing and meals.
2. Resource allocations and security. You may find yourself competing with deep pocket Government agencies or pipeline response companies for scarce resources. As silly as it may sound now -- do you have enough batteries, generators and the like for operation of at least a week at the response site? I hate to sound overly sensitive about logistics, but it is a hard lesson to learn. In Russia, for example, many of my American colleagues learned the hard way that you don’t just go to the corner store for supplies. If you don’t have it when you leave, you don’t have it.
3. “Strap-hangers” - the press, protesters, job seekers and the idle curious may play into this equation as well. How good is your security? The possibility of injury to overly curious tourists cannot be overemphasized. These same folk pose a problem with spreading pollution beyond the initial impact area or back into cleared areas.
4. Downwind impacts. Using the Russian example - a large oil containment area was deliberately and illegally, set alight. The smoke plume (and toxic byproducts) went up over 8,000 feet and extended beyond the horizon - some 40 miles away. Your workers will be required to wear Personal Protective Equipment if they will be near the spilled product. Be sure to have an initial issue on hand before you leave for the response site.
5. Transportation impacts. Large numbers of vehicles - from pickup trucks to 10 yard dumpers and backhoes - and associated flatbed and tanker trucks may become an obstacle and cause a logistics nightmare. Do you have alternate transportation routes or bus service available for your workers? A park and ride scheme may be one way to beat this problem.
6. Health impacts. Toxic byproducts from spills or burning of spilled material may cause health impacts. You most likely will have to start some type of employee health monitoring if you have folks on site for extended periods of time. See your local OSHA or EPA representatives for the current rules and regulations.http://www.gurukul.ucc.american.edu/ted/KOMI.HTM


Donald E. Koehler, CRP, has recently been promoted from corporate business continuity manager to network operations manager at a major Alaskan communications corporation. You may contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..