UST-USA, Russia — Oil coats the hulls of fishing boats in the ice along the banks of the Pechora River. In bays and inlets near this Arctic Circle village of reindeer farmers and salmon fishermen, frozen oil droplets fleck the ice.
The black crude is a greasy rebuke to Russian officials, who insist that the majestic Pechora--and the rich fishing grounds that stretch to the Arctic Ocean--have not been polluted by this country's largest oil spill.
This autumn, the people of Ust-Usa watched helplessly as thousands of tons of oil began oozing into the vast watery network that flows from the desecrated oil fields of Usinsk into the Pechora, then 450 miles north through the tundra to the Barents Sea.
Fishermen say the oil traveled at least 70 miles downstream before the Pechora began to freeze. The riverside meadows in Ust-Usa where cattle fatten each summer are befouled, they say, and the few fish that swam upstream this fall reeked of petroleum and were inedible.
Now the 2,500 villagers are bracing for spring, when the oil-drenched marshes, streams and rivers that feed the Pechora will melt. Unless the oil is excavated from frozen swamps before the thaw, the people of Ust-Usa expect a slimy deluge that could wipe out their way of life.
"If they (officials) say it's just a miniature, local catastrophe, they are only fooling themselves," said Viktor Obaidakhanin, an Ust-Usa police major. "We are all living on this one small planet."
And the damage continues. Earlier this month, journalists and environmentalists discovered more fresh oil hemorrhaging from three new ruptures in the decrepit Usinsk oil pipeline network. One huge leak, captured on videotape by the environmental group Greenpeace, gushed about 13,000 tons of oil, Russian scientists say.
In a practice once typical of Soviet oil fields, cleanup crews tried to get rid of the oil by setting it afire, sending up huge black clouds of toxin-laden smoke that hovered darkly on the horizon.
Yevgeny Grunis, industry minister of the autonomous Republic of Komi, where Usinsk is located, has denied that any new spills have occurred. Other officials said the oil had been spilled in August but only now set ablaze.
The videotape, however, shows a vast black lake of oil, not yet solidified nor covered by snow. At another site visited by journalists this month, tarry pools of oil had oozed over the fresh snow, and cleanup workers said the pipeline had leaked there two days earlier.
The story of the Usinsk oil spill is a familiar Third-World tale of environmental pillage and official indifference, analysts say.
"They get the wealth from our earth, they sell it, and instead of improving the lot of the local population, they ruin our lives," Obaidakhanin said. "Those in power spit on the people."
The oil spill began in July, when 23 separate leaks sprang in a 30-mile pipeline owned by Komineft, a former state-owned oil giant based in the city of Usinsk.
Komi officials say 14,033 tons were spilled, while Western estimates range up to 270,000 tons. If Western sources are correct, the accident would be about eight times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.
"The debate about how much oil spilled is academic," Greenpeace biologist Paul Horsman said. "This is the largest of many spills that have occurred here, and there is going to be major environmental damage."
The spill was discovered Aug. 23, when members of the Usinsk Ecology Committee flying in a helicopter noticed a huge blotch of oil in a swamp north of the city, committee head Sergei V. Zhunyov said.
City officials called a meeting of Komineft and the seven other companies--three of them Western--that use the 22-year-old pipeline, a decaying facility that all sides agree should have been scrapped at least four years ago. But the oilmen refused to shut the pipeline for repairs.
"They gave many reasons for not wanting to shut it down," Zhunyov said. "If they had done it sooner, maybe this tragedy could have been avoided."
Komineft officials promised to have a new pipeline completed by December, and the city agreed to allow the old one to keep operating until Sept. 6, while a bypass was being readied.
But on Sept. 5, the pipeline sprang another massive leak. Thousands of tons gushed into the Palnik-Shor creek, blackened the Kolva River and moved into the Pechora.
Earlier this month, workers at Palnik-Shor were using an excavator to smash the ice, scoop congealed oil from the frigid water and pour the black gunk atop a heap of dirt.
Workers said the oil recovered from areas near roads will be reprocessed whenever possible, but in remote areas it will be burned. Western environmentalists shudder at the prospect of giant clouds, laced with toxic hydrocarbons, blanketing the tundra.
As temperatures plunged to 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit this month, the struggle to clean one 20-foot-square pit looked haphazard and excruciatingly slow. By official estimates, 66 acres have been contaminated.