Evaporating evidence Russian investigators conduct search at Caspian Pipeline Consortium following Black Sea oil spill

The location of the oil spill near Novorossiysk on August 12, 2021AP / Scanpix / LETA

Russian investigators began carrying out searches at the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) on August 12 — the day after media reports emerged about an oil spill in the Black Sea that took place over the weekend. The criminal investigation regarding the spill was also reclassified under more serious marine pollution charges, which carry punishments of up to two years behind bars. At the same time, the CPC’s chief executive insists that a slick in the Black Sea identified by Russian scientists is not oil, and the regional governor says there are no visible oil spills along the coastline. Scientists refute these claims. As one environmental expert told Meduza, oil residue on the water’s surface has likely evaporated due to heat, but there’s still a risk of environmental damage from the spill.

Following an oil spill in the Black Sea, Russian investigators were conducting searches at the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) — the company that owns the oil terminal where the incident took place. The Investigative Committee has also reclassified the criminal case opened in connection with the spill under more serious marine pollution charges that carry punishments of up to two years in prison. 

The case was originally classified under Criminal Code article 252, section 1. It’s now being investigated under Criminal Code article 252, section 2 — marine pollution that has caused substantial harm to human health, aquatic biological resources, the environment, zones of recreation, or to other law-protected interests.

CPC chief executive Nikolai Gorban stated that the slick in the Black Sea is not an oil one. Gorban claimed that the first satellite image of the waters confirmed that the area of the oil spill was 200 square meters (2,153 square feet), but a slick visible in a second image is not oil. “As of today, the coastline and the sea area are clean, the water samples are normal,” he said.

Gorban didn’t provide any details about origins of the slick, nor did he specify what images he was talking about. In all likelihood, he was referring to satellite images taken by scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Space Research Institute (IKI RAN), who reported that the oil spill actually covered an area of 80 square kilometers (31 miles) — not 200 square meters as the CPC has claimed.

Scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences refute the CPC chief executive’s claims. RAN’s Institute of Oceanology, which analyzed the photos of the slick in the Black Sea, insists that it was caused by an oil leak. “Considering the features of the slick on the satellite image […] it’s very difficult to imagine that this is any kind of natural phenomenon,” underscored Filipp Sapozhnikov, a doctoral researcher in biology who works at the institute. 

Following a helicopter ride along the coast, the regional governor said he didn’t see any oil spills in the Black Sea. But experts say the water is still contaminated. “We flew a helicopter over the Black Sea waters in the area of Abrau-Dyurso, Anapa, and Novorossiysk. We didn’t see oil spills in the sea water. We didn’t find any consequences of an oil spill or leak. There are no threats to the marine flora and fauna, and no threats to vacationers,” said Krasnodar krai Governor Veniamin Kondratyev. 

Earlier, Alexey Knizhnikov, who heads the responsible industry programme at World Wildlife Fund Russia (WWF Russia), told Meduza that some oil particles float to the surface of the water and evaporate quickly due to heat. Meanwhile, heavier particles spread into the water column, having a toxic effect on the marine environment and potentially contaminating the coast.

The oil spill in the Black Sea took place on Saturday, August 7. The CPC didn’t release a press statement until Monday, August 9. The incident took place while oil was being pumped into a Greek tanker, the Minerva Symphony, at a sea terminal belonging to the CPC near the port city of Novorossiysk. Two days later, the company reported that 12 cubic meters of oil (12,000 liters) had spread over an area of 200 square meters (2,153 square feet), claiming that the situation was “normalized” as of August 8. On August 10, Russian scientists reported that the area of the spill was nearly 80 square kilometers (31 square miles) — 400 times larger than originally estimated, — with a 19-kilometer (12-mile) slick stretching from the coast into the open sea. The news media picked up the scientists’ report on August 11. In turn, the Russian Investigative Committee launched a criminal probe and Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko instructed Russia’s natural resources regulator to assess the real scale of the damage from the oil leak.

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Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart


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