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Threat of oil spill menaces Russian Pacific island

Published on 26/02/2009

Korsakov -- Standing on the icy shoreline, Dmitry Lisitsyn recalled the day when over 100 dying birds washed up on this beach, coated in a thick layer of oil and helplessly flapping their wings.

"We believe there were several thousand birds killed in all," said Lisitsyn, an environmental activist on Russia’s Sakhalin Island, located in the Pacific Ocean just a few dozen kilometres (miles) north of Japan. "In such weather few birds can make it all the way to shore covered in oil without drowning,” Lisitsyn added, waving his hand at the frigid waters of Aniva Bay near the island’s southern tip. “Most drown out there in the sea."

Activists fear that the incident late last month could be a sign of things to come on Sakhalin, whose rich oil and gas fields have drawn billions of dollars’ worth of investment in recent years.

The development of Sakhalin’s energy industry has brought jobs and gleaming new business centres to this impoverished piece of Russia that used to be a prison colony in the 19th century.

It also promises to serve energy-hungry Asian economies, as underlined by the new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant expected to send its first cargo to Japan next month.

But locals worry about the ecological impact on Sakhalin, a long and narrow island whose 800-kilometre (500-mile) length includes forests, taiga and rivers rich in salmon.

Kim Limanzo, a fisherman from the town of Nogliki in northern Sakhalin, complains that fish populations have suffered since drilling began at offshore oil and gas fields nearby.

"Sometimes the fish tastes like oil," he said.

Activists have called for stronger safeguards to prevent a major spill, noting that tankers visiting Sakhalin must navigate harsh and icy waters and cross narrow straits spiked with dangerous rocks.

An oil spill will happen

"It is a question of when, not if, an oil spill will happen on Sakhalin," said Leah Zimmerman, head of Russia programmes at Pacific Environment, a US-based group that monitors ecological threats in the Pacific region. "Spills can come from extraction wells, subsea pipelines, or a major tanker accident like the Exxon Valdez spill," she said by e-mail, referring to the notorious 1989 spill in Alaska.

Others fear that the Trans-Sakhalin pipeline, which runs underground from northern Sakhalin to Aniva Bay in the south, could leak and spill tonnes of crude oil into rivers where salmon come to spawn.

In 2006, the Russian government accused Sakhalin Energy, the consortium that built the pipeline, of environmental abuses including the endangerment of salmon spawning areas.

The legal dispute was settled after Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom bought a majority stake in the consortium, which had previously been led by British-Dutch oil major Shell.

"There were some things that we did not get right the first time, but I think we learned and adapted what we were doing," Sakhalin Energy chief executive Ian Craig told AFP last week.

Craig stressed that the worst was over. "All of these impacts were limited to the construction phase,” he said. “In two or three years’ time people will largely not know where the pipeline is."

But activists note that Sakhalin is seismically active and worry that the pipeline could be ruptured by an earthquake or a landslide, which could potentially devastate salmon runs.

January’s incident, in which dying, oily birds washed up in Aniva Bay, has also raised fears of a major spill along Sakhalin’s coast.

The cause of the incident has yet to be established but it took place near the terminal operated by Sakhalin Energy, where tankers load up on crude.

Lisitsyn does believe it was necessarily caused by a spill from a tanker, however, saying it could have been caused by an accidental discharge of oil from a cargo vessel.

Still, he fears it could presage a big spill like the Exxon Valdez disaster of March 1989, when the Exxon-operated tanker hit a reef and released over a quarter of a million barrels of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.

"Exactly 20 years ago the Exxon Valdez oil spill took place in Alaska," Lisitsyn said. "We are very afraid that something similar could happen here."

Alexander Osipovich/AFP/Expatica