Russian Arctic Oil Pipeline Spill


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A major oil spill has been reported from a pipeline near the town of Usnisk in Northern Russia, just south of the Arctic Circle. The pipeline has been leaking since February 1994 but the oil was contained within a dyke built for the purpose. On 1st October, after some heavy rains, the dyke burst and the oil spilled into the nearby Kolva River. The total volume of oil spilt has been reported to be between 14,000 and 240,000 tonnes. Information supplied by the Russian Ministry of Environment Protection has been provided through the United Nations Environment Programme / Department of Humanitarian Affairs, Environment Unit.

A second oil spill was reported on 4th November 1994 from another rupture in the pipeline. The oil was reported to be burning fiercely. Further information on the impact of oil fires on the Arctic environment can be viewed here.

The following map is provided to show the pipeline relative to main rivers and protected areas.


Around Usinsk
Usinsk lies at the northern margin of the forest, within the taiga zone - a region of open woodland interspersed with short vegetation dominated by sedges and mosses. To the north, the trees give way to open tundra and to the south, the forest becomes more continuous. Within the Pechora river basin are large regions of marshland. The taiga-forest boundary corresponds fairly closely with the southern limit of the permafrost. The following map shows the forest of the region. In early November temperatures have started to drop and the surface is mostly frozen.
Pechora River and Delta
The Kolva River is a tributary of the Usa which, shortly after the confluence, flows into the Pechora River. The Pechora river is one of the main rivers of the European Arctic, rising at the northern end of the Ural Mountains and flowing into the southern Barents Sea through a large delta at the town of Nar'yan Mar (population 20,000). To the west side of the delta, extending along the Russki Zavarot Peninsula, lies the Nenetsky Nature Park. The Pechora River supports a large population of migratory salmon and char and fishing is one of the main industries of Nar'yan Mar. Statistics for 1975 showed that 1 million people lived in the Komi and 40 thousand in the Nenetsky region. Further information on the Pechora Delta has been provided by the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust.
Barents Sea
The Barents Sea lies to the north of European Russia, bounded to the east by the island of Novaya Zemlya. The Pechora River flows into the Pechorskoye Sea at its south-eastern corner. There are major commercial fisheries in the Barents Sea and some fish stocks are migratory, being shared with northern Norway. Large colonies of breeding seabirds are found along the coasts, particularly of Novaya Zemlya. The Pechorskoye Sea is usually ice-free until late December and supports large concentrations of sea duck. Marine mammals are also found in substantial numbers, notably the Beluga or White Whale, Ringed Seal, Bearded Seal and Polar Bear.

Oil Industry

The Russian Arctic contains several large areas that are favourable for oil and gas accumulation. Important oil discoveries have been made in the Pechora basin. In 1976 oil production from the Pechora basin totaled about 175 000 barrels per day comprising nearly 2% of the national production of the USSR. There is a oil pipeline running southwards from the town of Usinsk to Ukhta and onwards towards to Moscow. The region is affected both by the physical infrastructure (roads, pipelines, etc.) and also the effects of numerous oil spills which have occurred over the years. Some of these are documented by Greenpeace.

Impacts of Oil Spills

At low temperatures, oil tends to persist for long periods because of the low rates of evaporation. The frozen ground prevents it from seeping in, and this has the effect of making it travel for long distances. Disturbance to the thin layer of vegetation covering a frozen soil can precipitate catastrophic meeting of the underlying ice and result in extensive thermokarst erosion.

Tundra environments are particularly susceptible to disturbance, and effects remain visible for many years. Many of the Arctic plants are very susceptible to pollutants, especially lichens which are the main food of reindeer.

Although, in the medium term, the oil may become stabilised within the snow and ice cover of the region, it will be released once this melts in the spring. This will coincide with the return of migrating birds and is likely to maximise its impact.

Arctic freshwater ecosystems are poorly buffered and therefore not well able to withstand pollutants. Freshwater fisheries will be affected by oil in the river course. The main breeding season of salmon is approaching when they congregate in shallow waters and will be at their most susceptible.

Further detail of the impacts of oil exploration is given in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production in Arctic and Subarctic Onshore Regions; Guidelines for environmental protection. IUCN - The World Conservation Union and E&P Forum - The Oil Industry International, 1993

Protected Areas

PROFILE OF NENTSKY ZAKAZNIK (also known as Pechorskij Zakaznik)


Other Important Areas

Many of the surrounding areas, such as Khaypudyrskaya Guba (68°35'N, 59°45'E) and Varandeyskaya (68°50'N, 59°00'E) and Southern Coast of Cheshskaya Guba (66°50'N, 46°30'E) are also of great importance to waterfowl species, although the land itself is unprotected.

Species Likely to be Affected


Seal species likely to be affected in Bolvan Bay include: (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust)

Ringed Seal              Pusa hispida
Bearded Seal             Erignathus barbatus


Further information on birds has been prepared by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
The majority of the geese and waders which breed in the area migrate southwards in September and early October, not returning until mid-May. The Russky Zavorot Peninsula (Nenetsky Nature Park) is a major collecting point for migrating birds.

Sea ducks and seabirds may stay until the sea freezes. It is likely that the Pechorskoye Sea will hold significant quantities of birds moving westwards from the colder seas to the east.

Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus

Breeds on swampy, low-lying tundra. The Nenetsky Nature Park is one of the main breeding sites in European Russia. Spring migration passes through St Petersburg in late March - early April, arriving in Novaya Zemlya around mid-May. The autumn migration leaves the breeding territory in September, passing through St Petersburg in early November.

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus

Usually associated with large bodies of water, particularly where there is fringing vegetation. The Nenetsky Nature Park is one of the main breeding sites in European Russia. Spring migration arrives in Pechora region as early as mid-April. The autumn migration leaves in late September - mid October, following lake systems as much as possible. Small numbers winter in the White Sea and in unfrozen straits and polynyas.

Common Eider Somateria mollisima

Nests along most of the coastline, favouring small islands. Moves west with the onset of ice formation in November, some specimens wintering off the Murman coast.

King Eider Somateria spectabilis

Breeds on coastal tundra throughout the region. Winters in ice-free waters along the coast. Tens of thousands may winter around Kolguev Island, with smaller numbers on the west coast of Novaya Zemlya.

Steller's Eider Polysticta stelleri

Breeds west to Novaya Zemlya. Some birds may occur in the region until the sea freezes over.

Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis

Breeds on Kolguev Island and Novaya Zemlya. Large numbers winter off the Murman coast and in small numbers on floes at south-west Novaya Zemlya.

Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis

Breeds on western Novaya Zemlya with 2,500 pairs recorded.

Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus

About 8,500 pairs breed on western Novaya Zemlya.

Black-legged Kittiwake Rissa tridactyla

More than 29,200 pairs breed on western Novaya Zemlya.

Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnea

Some pairs breed on the coast of Novaya Zemlya and migrants may be moving through the area until the sea freezes.

Little Auk Alle alle

Between 10,000 and 50,000 pairs bred on western Novaya Zemlya.

Brünnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia

Possibly as many as one million pairs breed on western Novaya Zemlya.

Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle

About 5,000 pairs breed on Novaya Zemlya.

Freshwater Fish

Formerly a very important commercial fishery, the Pechora delta area has suffered from extensive overfishing in the past. Subsistence fishing however remains very important to the indigenous Nenetz people and more commercial fishing is increasing in the area as fish stocks slowly return.

Important fish species in the Russkiy Zavorot / Pechora Delta area.

Atlantic Salmon          Salmo salar
Inconnu (Nylma)          Stenodus leucichthys
Peled                    Coregonus peled
Whitefish                Coregonus sp. (2 - 3 species involved)
Smelt                    Osmerus eperlanus
Pike                     Esox lucius
Roach                    Rutilus rutilus
Burbot                   Lota lota
Perch                    Perca fluviatilis
Arctic Flounder          Liopsetta glacialis
Source: Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust


Grimmet, R.F.A. and Jones, T.A. (1990). Important Bird and Areas in Europe. International Council for Bird Preservation (European Continental Section) and International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau. International Council for Bird Preservation, Cambridge, U.K. 888 pp.

Shalybekov, A. and Storcheva, K. (1985). Prirodnye Zakazniki (Nature Reserve). Moscow. pp 10-11.


The information supplied in this package is the product of the Arctic Environmental Database, a collaborative project between WCMC, Moscow State University, the Scott Polar Research Institute and GRID-Arendal. Funding for the project has been supplied by the European Union and the UK Environmental Know How Fund.

Additional information for this information service has been supplied by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and the UNEP/DHA Environment Unit.