Almost a year after a disastrous oil spill in Russia's far northern Komi region, nature is making a comeback.
Grass and shrubs have been sprouting from the swampy stained soil that became the focus of a major international cleanup operation. A small army of about 800 well-equipped workers, led by a team of U.S. and Australian experts, has also prevented large amounts of the oil that spilled from a pipeline from flooding nearby rivers.
A major environmental disaster has been contained, but the vast area is far from clean. Creeks and bogs are filled with thick, black sludge, and some environmentalists fear that when foreign finance dries up the tundra will still be at the mercy of the remaining oil.
AES/Hartec, the U.S.-Australian joint venture contracted to handle the cleanup, has completed 65 percent of its planned work here, and its workers are scheduled to leave the area by Sunday.
Bert Hartley, president of U.S. partner Hartec Management, said the all-Russian future of the operation depends on cash. "It's a matter of economy," he said during a visit to the spill site, about 930 miles north of Moscow. "If they are supported with the appropriate financing, they will continue to progress in their environmental responsibility."
The Komi cleanup is being financed by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which together lent $124 million to pipeline owner Komineft.
Estimates of the size of the spill vary from 14,000 to 300,000 tons, although some of the higher figures include oil that had been seeping from the pipeline before the serious leak last autumn. The Environment Ministry puts it at between 90,000 and 120,000 tons -- more than twice as much as spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
The Save the Pechora Committee, a local environmental group, praised the transformation of the area since AES/Hartec started work in early March. "In autumn and winter, very little was done by Komineft; there is a big difference now," said committee leader Valentina Semyashkina.
She said she is concerned about oil that has been gathered in temporary storage areas and is too dirty to be pumped back into the pipeline. "My main fear is that oil will remain in these pits and be washed away again by rain," she said. "As far as recultivation goes, I fear Komineft will do nothing."
Komineft chief engineer Yuri Baidikov said work will not stop after the foreign specialists leave. "But it will be mostly monitoring work," he said. "Work will be scaled down, but we will use the same methods of organization and restore order. We have not much more than a month to clean up the remaining gross concentrations of oil. In this sense, we depend on the weather," he said, referring to the approaching winter.
AES/Hartec Project Manager Bill Stillings said the cleanup equipment will be left for Komineft. The joint venture also expects some cash to remain after Sunday.
Stillings said the "gross concentrations of potentially mobile oil" have been contained -- a task achieved with airboats, skimming systems, sophisticated pumps and rakes wielded by workers in coveralls.
Trees with dark stains high up their trunks bear witness to the extent of the spill and of the cleanup, as do before-and-after photographs displayed by AES/Hartec.
Project officials, aware of local resentment over foreign involvement in the operation, are careful to praise Komineft. "This is the first step toward a very good and environmentally responsible program," Hartley said.
Stillings described the work as a dramatic improvement and said nature had a good chance of recovering.
But many local residents are still suffering the consequences. Fishermen say their catch sometimes smells of oil, and villagers complain of contaminated grazing land.
"It could affect the health of our cows," said Cheslava Popova, a leader of the Kolva village administration. "We are getting less milk than before because of the lack of feed."
The funds from the World Bank and European Bank included $4.5 million to help alleviate the social effects of the oil spill. But Popova said Kolva had seen none of this money.
The only group to reap significant benefits from the disaster appears to be AES/Hartec, which has been widely praised for its efforts, and the firm's laborers, whose average salaries of $15 a day seem a fortune by Russian standards. But other big winners in Usinsk could well be the owners of the Argus restaurant, the favorite hangout of the foreign cleanup specialists. Restaurant administrator Oksana Seryogina said the new clients had brought healthy profits. "They certainly like their beer," she said.