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RIA Novosti: Environmental violations on Sakhalin

18:34 | 04/ 10/ 2006

YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK-MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna)

“I have seen so many gas and oil pipelines in different countries, but I have never witnessed the construction methods used by the Sakhalin Energy company in Russia,” said Deputy Director of Russia’s Federal Service for Environmental Supervision (FSES or Rosprirodnadzor in Russian abbreviation) Oleg Mitvol, addressing a news conference in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

“There is no doubt that the project should be stopped, and the damage to the environment rectified — illegal deforestation, sand-up streams, and river banks which have not been properly fortified.”

The conflict between Sakhalin Energy (Shell, Mitsui, and Mitsubishi), which is carrying out a major oil-and-gas project Sakhalin-2, and Russian environmental agencies has developed into a high-profile political scandal. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources has had to revoke its order No. 600 of July 15, 2003, whereby it endorsed the conclusions of the expert commission which had compiled a technical and economic feasibility report on the integrated development of the Piltun-Astokhskoye and Lunskoye license areas. This means that the work on the project must be stopped.

Needless to say, this decision spells enormous material losses for Sakhalin Energy. The company has chosen a tough line of political pressure, using diplomatic and international resources, and the press. Meanwhile, Russia’s position is very clear – it does not demand that the project should be shut down, or that the company’s license be withdrawn. Russia wants Sakhalin Energy to respect its environmental legislation and fulfill its requirements.

The Sakhalin Energy project, which was launched in 1996 on a par with Sakhalin-1, is Russia’s first experience of cooperation with foreign companies on the basis of a product-sharing agreement (PSA). It signaled large-scale development of oil and gas deposits on the island, and is the biggest of Sakhalin’s nine projects. In three years, the company implemented the project by 80%. This helps Russia become the world’s leader in energy, and will allows it to export oil to Asia and the Pacific. However, having given the foreign companies a license to tap its natural resources, Russia has not blessed them to destroy the unique nature of the Sakhalin Island.

From the helicopter the pipeline being laid looked like a wide sandy river against the background of Sakhalin’s dark taiga. The pipeline’s length is about 800 km. It crosses the island from north to south – from oil-bearing shelves to the port of Korsakov, which houses the terminals and an almost completed plant for the production of liquefied gas. Seen from above, the pipeline route seemed acceptable, except for its width. Under the project specifications, it should not be wider than 43 meters (with the exception of difficult terrain), and it was obvious that the bulldozers had failed to comply with the established standards.

When we visited a section of the route on the ground, near the village of Sovetsky, we found that in violation of the project the builders deviated from the established line by two kilometers, and violated the border of the Makarov State Wildlife Reserve. Bulldozers cleared a 200-meter wide path, destroying trees and covering them with earth. Experts are warning that the first rains will wash everything away, which will lead to mudslides. “We are going to collect the evidence and take the case to court. This is clearly the fault of Sakhalin Energy’s operator and subcontractors,” Mitvol commented.

The damage to Sakhalin’s nature is not limited to deforestation. Spawning rivers have also been affected. The pipeline route crosses more than a thousand different water obstacles, out of which 110 are spawning areas. The builders have cut down the hill which was on the route and backfilled a nearby stream. But there is still water in it, and mudslides are likely. The rivers backfilled with sand have found a new route, which means a big change. It will take several decades for the nature to adapt to it.

Bulldozers have not spared a small spawning river called Ai. Its banks were poorly fortified with deotextile (special fabric) and are already collapsing, gradually damming the river. We could see deotextile pieces everywhere, including in the river. This fabric does not rot but it is bad for the fish. At any rate, the Ai River was full of dead sturgeon. Dr. Valery Yefanov, a professor from Sakhalin State University, and his students have taken samples of the ground from the Ai and other rivers in the Makarov Reserve. He explained what damage can be caused by the failure to observe technological standards when laying a pipeline: “Most samples show that the silt factor is 100%, while the content of highly dispersed fractions stands at 25%-30%. Salmon will not be able to survive in such conditions. Absence of spawning will leave nothing for other fish.”

The spawning area of the Ai River is 50,000 square meters. A local hatchery turns out 22.6 million humpbacked salmon hatchlings a year. Yefanov said that during the past year mudslides narrowed the Ai so much that it started washing away the hatchery. He maintains that this factor has already exerted a negative impact on the environment over the past three years, and will be causing damage for another five to six years. It will take the Ai decades to recover fully.

“The company should reimburse Russia for the environmental damage it has caused,” Oleg Mitvol said. “In tentative estimates, it illegally seized and destroyed almost 50 hectares of forests only on the territory we have visited. This damage is estimated at about 15 million rubles,” he concluded. Mitvol promised to conduct a detailed air survey to calculate the scale of the damage. A Moscow team is already working on it.

For a long time a Sakhalin Energy representative (an Austrian citizen) in charge of the John Michael Gee ship refused to take on board the journalists who had arrived at the port of Korsakov in order to evaluate the condition of the Aniva Bay. After a long wrangle and under pressure from the director of the port, the ship eventually went into the bay, and headed to the place where huge amounts of crabs, trepangs, fry, sea urchins, and fish had been recently discovered on a 10 km long strip of coastline. The oilmen explained this incident by a storm. But environmental experts blame chemicals for their death.

Laboratory tests will show who is right. But while on board the ship, we saw how it released liquid waste into the water without any embarrassment. Oleg Mitvol said that it was dichloromethane, which is used in the cooling system. A sailor from the ship confirmed this fact.

Meanwhile, under the international maritime rules, all toxins must be poured into special containers, and taken to ports for utilization.

The port of Korsakov is located in the Aniva Bay in the southern part of the island. Tankers with Russian oil and gas are supposed to leave from there for Pacific countries. Oil terminals and a plant for the production of liquefied gas are under construction in the port.

Dmitry Lisitsyn, a local expert on the environment, explained the gist of the Aniva Bay predicament. It is shallow, and had to be deepened in order to allow large-tonnage ships approach the piers.

The initial feasibility report provided for a 1,400 meters-long pier, in which case a rather small amount – 140,000 cubic meters of the ground – had to be taken out. However, later on Sakhalin Energy reduced the pier to 800 meters because the pipelines from which it was being built were too expensive. But in this case the pier would end in a shallower zone, which had to be made much deeper.

As a result, about 1.5 million cubic meters of seabed soil were taken out, and thrown into the depth of 60 meters into the bay. This produced an adverse effect on the bay, which is highly valuable as a home to many maritime dwellers. The Aniva Bay is a spawning area for several types of crab, a place of salmon migration, breeding and feeding of the queen crab. It is a home for sea urchins, trepang, and shellfish. Biologists have already registered some pollution-caused mutations. “There are international norms to protect the coastal zones from pollution. They ban the release of any harmful wastes into the water. But these restrictions are not observed in the Aniva Bay,” Lisitsyn said. Sakhalin Energy claims that the bay has not been classified, and it can pour waste into it for this reason. The expert confirmed that the Russian Government has not yet assigned a category to the Aniva Bay, although it is clearly of crucial fishery importance.

Oleg Mitvol reported that next year his department would conduct full-scale monitoring of the Aniva Bay to establish the amount of damage. “It is hard to even imagine what it will cost to repair the damage to the bay because seabed work is very expensive. Total damage, including forests, the bay, and the rivers, may run into 50 billion rubles,” Mitvol said.

When the ship was returning to the port of Korsakov, we witnessed one more outrageous incident. A hill was detonated before our eyes, and a huge cloud of smoke rose in the air. It appeared that technical explosions produced rock for the construction needs. Dmitry Belonovich, a local FSES representative, reported, “All this is being done without a license or any permit.”

We wanted to hear what Sakhalin Energy representatives would say about the environmental aspects of the Sakhalin-2 project, but they did not show up at a news conference with journalists and environmental experts in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, as they had promised. and its sister non-profit websites,,,,,, and are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia feature.

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