Oil on the Tundra: A spill in the Komi Republic
Industrial accidents involving natural resources often occur in rural or remote locations. Radio communications may be the only means of coordinating containment and mitigation efforts. However, the accident itself can pose special radio operations and maintenance problems.
>From August to September 1994, a series of massive oil pipeline leaks >occurred in rural Northern Russia in an area about 1,200km due west of >Finland, near the Arctic Circle. The nearest town to the spill area was >Usinsk, about 30km away.
The communications requirements of the resultant containment, cleanup and mitigation activities are of interest both for the lessons learned and for planning a remote response. While the Russian pipeline leak may be unique because of its sheer size, it provides many examples and lessons. Smaller pipeline leaks occur regularly in North America and a response-communications planner or provider must understand this type of technology accident.
What happened? The Komi spill, also known as “The Usinsk Accident,” has been reported (1) as one of the worst in history, perhaps eight times greater than the EXXON Valdez tanker spill. The pipeline owner, KomiNeft (Komi Oil), local authorities and the Russian government initially tried to downplay or obscure the extent of the spill. When oil started to show up in the Barents Sea, the world community was forced to step in to control the environmental damage.
The release has been estimated as high as 200,000 metric tons of oil, found at four major points over an 18km length of older pipeline. (The scope of the spill was so large, it was visible from space. For more details, see the Web site addresses in the references.) The pipeline, first placed in service in the early 1970s, had been leaking for some time, with major leaks first noted in 1988. Corrosion caused by oxygenated river water, which was mixed into the oil to assist in pumping, was a major factor in the pipeline’s deterioration. Take the old Soviet environmental attitude, bad construction techniques and then add in the general societal chaos at the collapse of the old Communist system, and you have a complete recipe for disaster.
Initial containment efforts, such as siphon dams built of sand, were only marginally successful. And, when the spring thaw hit in 1995, they failed completely. Under intense pressure from the world community, the Russians brought Western technology and a small number of American oil workers in under contract (2) to provide new cleanup technology and training on proven response techniques. The U.S. government and the World Bank (3) provided funding and survey data to address the spill problem.
Have background, will travel How did I get involved? Before the spill, I had spent several years writing response, training and logistics support documents first as a contractor, then later as an employee, for an environmental company in Alaska. In April 1995, I was contacted by the company owner and offered a job on the spill response team as the plan writer and to provide photographic documentation. I resigned my position at the University of Alaska and traveled to Usinsk. Once at the job site, it became more of a “Swiss-army-knife” job, entailing work on LMR radio systems, making maps, fixing gas samplers, setting up computers and printers, and performing basic survey work, all as part of the total response effort.
I walked some 40km along the soiled shores of the Kolva river and feeder streams, the inland spill sites and the length of the damaged section of the pipeline-photographing and surveying the damage. It is impossible to fully describe the spill and its impact adequately in words alone. I photographed the project, people, equipment and structures, producing more than 3,000 map-indexed images. An on-site project ecological science team generated additional photo work and documentation.
Communication was provided by radios and repeaters obtained from a Canadian oil company under a subcontract. Communication back to Alaska was via INMARSAT-P phones. These units are worth their weight in gold for this type of operation, especially during the logistics ramp-up. The satcom radios were also critical during the bid phase when no formal contract agreements existed with Russia, and because the telephone system dates from 1917 (honest). The ability to send and receive data and faxes in the field-via a laptop computer-is critical to setting up the infrastructure to support large-scale operations. It also provides a “paper trail” and reduces the potential for confusion. We used Macintosh Powerbook 180s with small printers linked together in a small LAN to handle the office chores, with the satcom link serving as a backup for critical fax documents.
Costs and funding The Kolva River Basin Response Project was successful because it prevented further oil from reaching the Kolva, Usa and other downstream rivers. Funds that were available and were used for the project were equivalent to $23 million, with the bulk of the project work done over two summers. The EXXON Valdez cleanup, by contrast, consumed some $5 billion over several years. The Komi impact site was larger by several orders of magnitude.
The disparity in response funding levels reflects differences in government philosophy, location, physical and chemical characteristics of the oil itself and-frankly-the depth of the pockets of the pipeline company. Because KomiNeft was technically bankrupt at the time, funding was heavily dependent on sources outside of Russia.
Containment and communications Terrestrial spills can be somewhat easier to access and control, with less impact from bad weather or access, compared to ocean tanker spills. But on a spill of this size-and in the Arctic wilderness-nothing was easy. Roads were laid out to the spill sites for construction of containment and collection infrastructure. Large amounts of the oil were simply buried in “polygons”-large, clay-lined pits near the collection points. The project’s goal was to keep the oil from migrating into the ocean. Management could be performed site-by-site under local supervision.
The radio net was used primarily for safety and logistics calls. All of the radio systems used (hand-held and mobile units) were made by Motorola. Because the spill was primarily terrestrial, the work sites were well defined. Radios were used for logistics and safety/health emergencies. The radio system included a series of repeater/remote base stations. The base stations were linked back to the central control point via a UHF link. Most communication was simplex within the work site-saving money (access to a repeater) and reducing co-channel interference. The sites were separated (in some cases, by 15km). This allowed reuse of radio frequencies-again, a savings. The Radius hand-held systems worked great, taking the day-to-day beating without a glitch. The battery life was also a lifesaver because most sites did not have ac power for charging stations. We considered using solar panels, but because of cost, shipping and security issues it was decided that extra batteries were the best, least-cost option.
Intrinsically safe (IS) radios were not used at the Komi site because the oil had aged over a winter. If you work on a fresh spill, or in an area involving natural gas, the safety staff should designate areas requiring IS equipment.
Waxworks in ebony Although the oil was bad for the environment, the greater impact to the fragile Arctic ecology may have been the brine mixed with the oil to ease pumping. The oil itself is a thick, heavy (high-paraffin content) type that must be heated to pump. Once the oil left the pipeline, it essentially “froze” in place-looking like huge slabs of black candle wax. Indeed, in many areas, the oil was removed with a backhoe. The summer heat would cause it to flow again. In many areas the water had carried oil high into the trees lining the impacted streams.
If you’re ever involved in a response effort like this, realize that it is dirty work. The radios will get dirty and possibly oily. Be prepared to clean and decontaminate equipment regularly. The prime contractor’s safety office should provide instructions for this-or you can insist that the equipment be cleaned and decontaminated before you work on it. Be prepared to look at all sorts of odd equipment. If you are the prime electronics repair shop, you may be expected to work on a gas-sampling apparatus, a turbidity meter or some other esoteric device. Sort out in advance what you will work on and what is out of scope. (Workflow suggestion: Put the word out early that you will not touch personal radios, phones, CD players, cassette players, etc.) Portable scanners for the technicians are also useful field tools that allow them to keep tabs on what is working or not.
Impacts to the local area The spill area is remote: thinly populated and rural. In many ways, it resembles conditions found in Alaska. The initial spill affected about 67.5 hectares of tundra; then spring floodwaters spread the oil. Scientists have established that about 2,110 hectares (1 hectare = 2.2 acres) of meadows and pastures, including reindeer grazing lands, were contaminated. In some villages, as much as 92% of all the grazing and fodder-producing land was affected. Damage to rivers, pastures and meadows seriously affects the well-being of the local residents, who depend strongly on their vegetable plots, cattle, hunting and fishing for existence. (4)
The economic impact and damage estimates were based on the officially adopted figure of 14,033 tons of oil. Overall damage was estimated at more than 311 billion rubles (about US$103 million). The officially confirmed estimate of 79,000 tons of spilled oil brought the cost of the damage to 1.5 trillion Rubles (US$495.7 billion). (5)
The difference in the estimates of the size of spill, from less than 15 kilotons to the high end of from 102 kilotons to 200 kilotons, is the difference between Russian estimates and measurements made by the U.S. EPA (6) and Canadian environmental specialists.
By contrast, the TransAlaska Pipeline System (TAPS) has operated during the same timeframe as the KomiNeft system, in a similar environment, with only two small spills, measured in barrels rather than tons. Both Alaskan spills were quickly contained and cleaned up, and restoration work was initiated. Oversight and regulation provide the difference in the outcome.
Disaster team planning Communications planners must account for the inevitable EMI/RFI and incompatibility issues that arise from too many radios and too few frequencies. Work in or around littoral (shoreline) areas brings the additional headache of coordinating marine and safety frequency usage. Preplanning and drills in your area of responsibility will help, but you must experience the incredible congestion to fully understand the frustration of radio users.
Taking the plan to the field * “Crowd control” – The sheer number of people who respond for containment, cleanup and mitigation activities can be overwhelming. You may not be able to find a hotel or motel room for miles around your site. The rental car scene will be chaotic, as will any public transportation systems. This has been described as a “flood” of humanity. In the Komi case, several thousand people showed at the gate of the project office seeking jobs. Rental and itinerant radio systems will complicate matters. Many large clean-up projects have resorted to full-time frequency coordinators.
* Resource allocations and security -You may find yourself competing with deep-pocket government agencies or pipeline response companies for scarce resources. As silly as it may sound now, do you have enough batteries, generators and the like for operation of at least a week at the response site? I may seem overly sensitive about logistics, but it can be a hard lesson to learn. In Russia, for example, many of my American colleagues learned the hard way that you don’t just go to the corner store for supplies.
Once in the field, you will find out just how well you planned. Extra hand-mics, antennas and batteries are always needed due to harsh conditions and the “Bubba factor” found on this type of project. A complete set of hand tools and several small tool boxes (one per technician, minimum) will allow you to respond to work on communications equipment without pulling the heavy equipment (like bulldozers and motorblades) off of the job site. A portable, trailer-mounted shelter can provide a clean, dry work area.
“Strap-hangers”-the press, protesters, job seekers and the idly curious-may play into this equation as well. How good is your security? Place the repeaters in strong, locked, portable buildings. Shop and maintenance equipment should be clearly marked and locked up.
* Downwind impacts – During the Komi cleanup, a large oil containment area was deliberately-and illegally set afire. The smoke plume (and toxic byproducts) rose more than 8,000 feet and extended beyond the horizon-some 40 miles away. Your workers may be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Be sure to have an initial issue on hand before you leave for the response site. This also raises the issue of mics and earpieces that can be worn and used inside a HAZMAT suit.
* Transportation impacts – Radio installation may be tricky, depending on the indigenous vehicles. The Russian light trucks, jeeps and vans were all 12Vdc, negative-ground power systems. The dashboards were large-and metal. Many of the heavy trucks and related pieces of heavy equipment used in the former Soviet Union are right out of Jane’s International Defense Review. The most unusual setup we encountered was an ICBM TEL (transporter/erector/launcher) converted to carry a 25-ton construction crane. Large numbers of vehicles-from pickup trucks to 10-yard dump trucks and backhoes (including associated flatbed and tanker trucks) may also become an obstacle and cause a logistics nightmare. Do you have alternate transportation routes or bus service available for your workers? A park-and-ride scheme may be necessary.
* Health impacts – Toxic byproducts from spills or the burning of spilled material may be health hazards. Some type of employee health monitoring will be necessary if employees spend much time on site. See your local OSHA or EPA representatives for the current rules and regulations.
Becoming a resource Remember to maintain your sense of humor, keep the radios running and work with the customer (the prime contractor). Spill response and cleanup management crews are a small group of people who remember who worked well “the last time.” They are noted for extending an invitation to bid based on a word-of-mouth reference. Providing communications support for an accident response project can be profitable-if you do your homework. Success requires planning and practicing response and maintenance strategies
References 1. http://gurukul.ucc.american.edu/ted/ KOMI.HTM. 2.http://gurukul.ucc.american.edu/ted/KOMI.HTM. 3. http://ns.noaa.gov/NESDIS/gedm.html#komi. 4. http://www.kingston.ac.uk/~ad_s702/ case2.htm. 5. Ibid. 6. http://www.akvaplan.niva.no/ akvaplan/komi.htm.