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Oil Companies to Enter Whales' Remote Habitat

Fears for a dwindling band of grays in the Russian Far East parallel international concern over development in the nature-rich region.

August 03, 2004|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

YUZHNO SAKHALINSK, Russia — The gray whales that glide down the California coast each year on their annual migrations are remarkable in their abundance: Nearly extinct a century ago, they now number about 17,500. Not so their almost identical twins on this side of the Pacific.

About 100 gray whales remain in the group that idles its summers away in the Sea of Okhotsk near this remote Russian island. A chilly bay on Sakhalin's northeastern coast contains the only known feeding grounds for the big grays as they prepare for their grueling winter migration, as far as the South China Sea.

These days, that 62-mile stretch of bay is inhabited by more than a dwindling number of whales. The biggest oil development project in Russia is underway on Sakhalin island, featuring a network of offshore oil platforms right next to the whale feeding grounds.

Beginning next spring, undersea pipelines will be dug into the seabed, straight through the feeding range. Seismic oil detectors have probed the entire area, sending potentially disturbing waves of sound through the shallow waters.

The most recent surveys show only 23 breeding females left among Sakhalin's gray whales. "If only a few whales die, the point of no return will be passed," Dmitry Lisitsyn, an activist with Sakhalin Environment Watch, said recently from his office in this bustling new oil town. "And there won't be even a theoretical possibility for the population to survive."

The International Whaling Commission last month said it was "a matter of absolute urgency" to protect the remaining whales, calling for a halt to seismic exploration in sensitive areas and measures to prevent a "catastrophic oil spill."

"The Sakhalin oil development clearly poses a serious threat to [the whales'] future survival," the commission's scientific committee said in a report.

The commission's action underscores growing international concern over massive oil development in the Russian Far East, which environmentalists say threatens the wild rivers, deep forests and open ocean that for centuries remained among the most pristine in the world because of their very remoteness.

The region is home to some of the Pacific's last unfettered salmon runs and to brown bears and rare species of leopard and tiger.

"One of the things scientists are amazed at is how rich this area is," said David Gordon of Pacific Environment, a San Francisco-based group that has worked to counter the growing impact of logging, oil and hydropower development on the other side of the Pacific.

Nowhere is the potential clash of interests more acute than on the island of Sakhalin, which for decades was an impoverished Soviet military protectorate.

Sakhalin Energy Investment Co., a consortium led by Royal Dutch/Shell Group and its partners, would move oil from the offshore platforms down a 500-mile pipeline from Piltun Bay in the north, crossing 24 major fault lines and more than 200 salmon-spawning rivers. The company is proposing to build bridges on seven of the streams to avoid disturbing the waterways. Russian government fisheries experts have recommended at least 29 bridge crossings.

"We're talking about the most valuable and critical spawning grounds," Lisitsyn said.

Under Sakhalin Energy's plan, most riverbeds would be dug up and the pipeline buried underneath, where environmentalists fear that a small rupture could leak poison into a stream for weeks before being detected. Company officials say the pipeline is designed to immediately shut down in the event of any substantial leak. The government has made no final ruling on the issue.

Fears about the mix between oil and nature were realized early in June, when a road built by a contractor for ExxonMobil Corp. inadvertently blocked fish trying to spawn in a small stream near Chayvo Bay, a planned offshore drilling site. Nearly 15,000 stickleback and smelt were found dead next to a faulty culvert.

For many Sakhalin residents, the incident called up memories of 1999, the year the island's first offshore oil platforms were built. In June of that year, fishermen were horrified to find more than 900 tons of dead herring floating a few miles from the new oil platforms. The pile of carcasses stretched for eight miles.

Officially, the die-off was blamed on oxygen depletion from heavy ice the winter before. But scientists found fresh petroleum and heavy metals in many of the fish. They said their findings were consistent with poisoning from chemical dispersants used to treat oil spilled in seawater, or possibly oil drilling muds.

The oil companies said no oil had been spilled. But for many indigenous Sakhalin residents who saw their historic herring fishery demolished that year, there has remained little doubt.

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