RUSSIAN OIL SPILL CONTAINED, BUT CLEAN-UP WORK REMAINS

RUSSIAN OIL SPILL CONTAINED, BUT CLEAN-UP WORK REMAINS

Almost a year after Russia's most-publicized oil spill in the far northern Komi region, Mother Nature is making a comeback.

Green grass and shrubs are sprouting from the swampy stained soil that became the focus of a major international clean-up operation.A small army of about 800 well-equipped workers, led by a team of U.S. and Australian experts, also has prevented large amounts of oil from flooding into nearby rivers.

A major environmental disaster has been contained. But the vast area, which takes at least two days to survey, is far from clean.

Entire 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 is due to leave the area by Sept. 24.

Bert Hartley, president of U.S. Partner Hartec Management, said the all- Russian future of the operation depended on cash. "It's a matter of economy," he said during a visit to the spill site, about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of Moscow.

"If they are supported with the appropriate financing, they will continue to progress in their environmental responsibility," he said.

The Komi cleanup is being paid for by the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which together loaned $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 spilled before leaks worsened last autumn.

The Environment Ministry puts it at between 90,000 and 120,000 tons - more than twice as much as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

The Save the Pechora Committee, a local environmental group, praised the transformation 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 Valentina Semyashkina, committee leader.

She said she was concerned about oil that had gathered in temporary storage areas and which was too dirty to pump 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."

Yuri Baidikov, Komineft chief engineer, said work would 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.

Bill Stillings, AES/Hartec project manager, said the best available clean-up equipment, bought with the World Bank/EBRD funds, would be left for Komineft. The joint venture also expects some cash to remain after the September departure date.

Mr. Stillings said the "gross concentrations of potentially mobile oil" had been contained.

The task has been achieved with airboats, skimming systems, sophisticated pumps and workers in white overalls with simple rakes.