SAN FRANCISCO - March 31 - Fifteen years after the infamous Exxon-Valdez oil spill, environmental activists are alarmed that another spill or accident on a similar scale is likely near or on Sakhalin Island, Russia. They point to a December accident that occurred at the construction site of a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminal on the island that involved a sixty ton casing for pilings that gave way in turbulent weather. A barge carrying soil washed against a floating crane, breaching the hulls of the crane and the barge, and destroying the casing.
Local and international environmental experts say that the nature of that accident, and the oil companys response to it, are ominous signs of how the oil companies would react to an oil spill. The LNG terminal would be the endpoint of an 800 kilometer pipeline which would run the length of the island. It is operated by Sakhalin Energy Investment Corporation, owned by Shell Oil, Mitsubishi, and Mitsui.
Among the red flag issues that the accident brings up are:
- · In the accidents aftermath, assistance was requested from two tugboats, Ekoshelf-1 and Rubin. But apparently the two tugs were unable to assist because they do not work at night, when the accident occurred. These two tugboats are managed by Ekoshelf and SakhBASU, two organizations that would be key elements of the oil spill response. Doug Norlen, Policy Director at Pacific Environment, asked If key elements in the projects oil spill response plan are inoperable at night, can we assume that the oil companies only anticipate spills in the daytime?
- · Confusion has swirled around the cause of the accident and who was responsible. Potential causes that have been cited are bad weather and lack of structural integrity of building material. Meanwhile, neither Sakhalin Energy nor its contractors have provided public information about the accident. Although a commission was allegedly formed to investigate the accident, to date there have been no public statements from the commission. Citizens on Sakhalin are concerned that this portends a future where project operators conceal larger and more harmful accidents from the public.
- · The accident raises concern over the quality of materials being used in the Sakhalin II project. According to witnesses, the pilings tore through metal, not along the welding seams. The Director of the Transstroi office, Aleksandr Burtsev, was quoted as saying, More than anything I am bothered by the fact that all the specifications were followed, but the piling casing, designed for local conditions, did not hold up. This raises serious questions about the quality of specifications, and on-the-ground implementation of specifications, for the much larger oil and gas pipelines, the LNG facility, and for other critical elements of Sakhalin II.
This anniversary is a grim reminder of how dangerous oil production can be, commented David Gordon, Acting Executive Director of Pacific Environment. Even in 1989, safety standards were better in Alaska than what we see in Sakhalin today. This recent accident was environmentally benign, but demonstrates what low standards are being practiced by Sakhalin Energy, and how ill-prepared they are.
Pacific Environment released a report in 1999 called Sakhalins Oil: Doing It Right.. This report, authored by Alaskan and North Sea experts who had experience dealing with the Exxon Valdez spill, provided more than 70 recommendations about how to bring Sakhalin oil development standards up to the standards used in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez spill. Unfortunately, local community activists note that the vast majority of these recommendations have yet to be implemented by Shell or other companies active on Sakhalin Island. Dmitry Lisitsyn, chair of Sakhalin Environment Watch, said, What a shame it will be if Sakhalin is doomed to repeat the tragedy of the Exxon Valdez. What a pity that neither Shell nor ExxonMobil have chosen to lead the way in ensuring we have good oil spill prevention and response measures.
Pacific Environment is also concerned about plans by Exxon-Mobil to ship oil through ice-bound seas in the Russian Far East. Despite protests from the local environmental community, Exxon-Mobil plans to ship oil through the ice-clogged Tatar Straits using icebreakers, despite the extreme risk to oil tankers and Exxon-Mobils poor environmental record.
Pacific Environment protects the living environment of the Pacific Rim by strengthening democracy, supporting grassroots activism, empowering communities, and redefining international policies. Pacific Environment provides direct support to activists working on Sakhalin Island.