From: Henry Meyer, Associated Press
Published July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Russian Ministry Warns of Environmental Catastrophe after Oil Spill

MOSCOW — Russia's Natural Resources Ministry said Monday that an oil pipeline leak in western Russia threatened environmental damage, but the pipeline's operator said the spill was far smaller than the ministry claimed and had already been cleaned up.


The Natural Resources Ministry backed off an earlier warning that the spill was a potential environmental catastrophe. The ministry initially said the spill, which occurred Saturday in the western Bryansk region on the border with Ukraine and Belarus, affected a 4-square-mile area and contaminated water sources.


"Judging by information reaching the ministry from representatives of environmental organizations ... the consequences of the accident may be an environmental catastrophe in the region," the ministry's first statement said.


However several hours later, the ministry issued a second statement saying experts were "not disposed to call the accident ... an ecological catastrophe."


Department spokesman Rinat Gizatulin said the leak only became public Monday. The 2,500-mile Druzhba pipeline can transport more than 1.2 million barrels a day and generally works near or at full capacity.


An official from state pipeline operator OAO Transneft said the spill only affected a 4,000-square-foot area and that the consequences had been dealt with over the weekend.


"It's already all cleared up. Now there is no problem," said Mikhail Sayapin, head of the Transneft unit that operates the pipeline.


He said the pipeline had stopped pumping oil over the weekend, but that the flow had resumed Monday. The 2,485-mile-long pipeline has the capacity to ship over 1.2 million barrels a day to eastern and central Europe and generally works at or close to its full capacity.


Gizatulin said ministry experts would arrive at the scene later Monday and he accused Transneft of regularly suppressing information about oil spills.


"Transneft are prone to downplay the consequences of accidents on their pipelines," he said.


In January, Russian environmentalists complained about being barred from the site of a pipeline rupture in Udmurtia, about 625 miles east of Moscow, preventing them from determining how much oil spilled or what caused the accident.


The Natural Resources Ministry said at the time that at least 3,200 tons of oil had spilled, and at least half of that had leached into nearby waterways. But Transneft insisted only a fraction of that amount had spilled.


Oil spills occur regularly along Russia's pipeline network,


Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's energy department, said spills of 1,000 tons of oil occur every one to two years on average, while smaller accidents involving several hundred tons occur every two to three months.


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Associated Press reporter Alex Nicholson in Moscow contributed to this report.


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