The Russian Oil Spill and World Oceans Day

Image: Ryan-Kelly, Jennifer. Oil Spill Feature Image. June 2021.

On the 29th of May, 2020, along with the worsening pandemic that was bringing the world to its knees, there was now news of a Russian oil storage tank leaking into a freshwater lake. There was also talk that this leaking could start to spread into the Arctic Ocean. In June last year, there was a report of about 21,000 tonnes of oil that had contaminated the Amarnaya river and the surrounding area. [1]

How did it happen?

How does such a devastating oil spill like this one even happen? The storage tank was located near Norilsk, and investigators at the time believed that because the tank sat on permafrost and it had been unusually warm in the area, the permafrost had melted and led to the supports around the tank weakening.

The Oil Spill in Russia

Illyushina, Mary. “A Diesel Spill in the Ambarnaya River Outside of Norilsk, Russia. .” CNN, 4 June 2020.

The lake that had been contaminated with oil was Lake Pyasino. This lake is quite significant because it feeds into the Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. The Russian workers were quick in handling this disaster as it would have turned calamitous in its consequences had the oil leaked into the Arctic Ocean.

President Vladimir Putin issued a state of emergency to tackle the oil spill, and many forces came together to help in its clean up, including the Bellona Foundation, an independent non-profit organization that aims to meet and fight climate challenges, Norwegian firms that handle oil spills and Russia’s chapter of WWF, World Wildlife Fund. With such collective efforts by early June 2020, 31,318 cubic meters of diesel and water mixture had been cleaned from the area, and 92,466 tons of contaminated soil had been taken and moved to a landfill to solve this issue. 

After looking into this issue, Alexei Knizhnikov, leader of the extractive industry programme for Russia’s chapter of WWF, said that this accident could’ve been prevented. While permafrost did melt, according to Knizhnikov, ultimately, the spill happened because of the outdated tank that the oil was stored in.

The cost of replacing the tank would have been far less than what is being paid now by the planet and its people.  [2]

More than Oil Spills…

In recent years we have become more aware of human activities wreaking havoc on our environment. The results include but are not limited to global warming and the consequential melting of polar ice caps, plastic pollution choking the life out of our oceans and also us, coral bleaching, and overfishing. A major repercussion of this is the endangerment and extinction of certain species of flora and fauna and also of entire ecosystems. This incident in Russia highlights another issue in our midst: oil spills. 

Oil spills should neither be taken lightly nor should they be ignored. Such incidents are more common than we realize and take place multiple times every year. With so much oil continuously ending up in our waterways, our environment is bound to suffer even more dire consequences. 

Like in Russia, after an oil spill occurs, one of the main solutions is to “clean up” everything. Although we want to believe that once we “clean up” all the oil, there will be no more harmful effects to the environment, that is hardly the case. An oil spill has many lasting impacts on the environment long after the oil has been “cleaned up”. 

The Effects of Oil Spills

oil in water from oil spill

Severnaya Oil Storage Company “Oil from an Oil Spill in Water”. 2018

When oil enters a water body,  it becomes a thin layer on top of the water as it spreads. A great way to visualize this is an oil-and-vinegar salad dressing where the oil and water never combine but stay separate. Similarly, in oil spills, the oil sits on top of the water and can affect marine creatures.

It also has ill effects on avian creatures as the deposition of this oil on their feathers can impair its insulating function and can lead to hypothermia. Marine animals can ingest or inhale the oil, which can poison them. Also, when oil ends up on beaches or intertidal zones, it can get on or poison the organisms that live there or go there, including beachgoers. [3]

Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist and oceanographer, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, claimed that the use of dispersants to clean up the oil only makes the ocean look better on the surface. These dispersants are actually very toxic. They are eye and skin irritants and are also harmful when inhaled. Dispersants tend to make things seem better, but their use only adds to the toxic chemicals in the oceans and therefore further causes issues for the environment, the inhabiting animals of these waters and ultimately us as well. [4]

Earle explained in an interview that we are highly dependent on the ocean:

We’re all dependent on the sea. With every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, we’re connected to the ocean. It doesn’t matter whether you ever see the ocean or not. You’re affected by it. You — your life depends on it”. 

We would be wrong to believe that this kind of disaster only affects our oceans and marine life. We are also heavily impacted by oil spills like the Russian oil spill that occurred last year, polluting the oxygen we breathe that the oceans provide along with the seafood we consume. With such spills, planktons get covered in oil which fishes then feed on. This continues up the food chain resulting in more and more chemicals being consumed by creatures at each level, ending with us swallowing this poison.

World Oceans Day

oil in water

World Oceans Day is a concept that was first brought up in 1992 by Canada’s International Centre for Ocean Development (ICOD) and the Ocean Institute of Canada (OIC) at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or as it may be called the Earth Summit. The United Nations officially recognized the day in 2008. It is a day to shine a light on the importance of oceans and the impact of human actions on them. This year it lands on June 8th. 

Along with raising awareness, World Oceans Day also emphasizes why we need to take care of our oceans and how we can contribute to them. This should be a day everyone takes part in. As Sylvia Earle remarked, the ocean’s health is important to the health of the rest of the world. If the ocean is sick, we’re sick. Our oxygen, water, minerals, energy resources, medicines and food all come from the ocean

With the increasing frequency of oil spills and their grave impact on our oceans, it is important to recognize the gravity of the situation and highlight it this World Oceans Day. Once oil spills are in the ocean, their toxins are left behind forever. Even if it seems like the oil has been cleaned up, the oil particles have only been dispersed, or, as mentioned before, the toxins added to the ocean just break the oil particles into smaller oil particles. The water may look clean, but we need to look beyond its surface appearance. We need to care more about the health of our environment than just how it looks. It’s living, just like us! 

Prevention Should Come First

Unlike roadside trash which can be picked up and disposed of, Oil spills simply can’t just be “cleaned up” afterwards. Oil leaks and spills out into other environments.

The Russian oil spill proved worrisome for many experts and environmentalists due to the anxiety of the imminent contamination of the Kora Sea. Nonetheless, due to quick action, such exponential aggravated assault on the environment could be prevented, but this isn’t always the case. There are too many risks with oil spills. There are too many factors to consider. 

That is why cleaning up the spill cannot be the only solution. We need something better. Prevention is the best way to protect the environment and us because it stops the problem before it can occur. As the Department of Ecology in Washington said, “it is far less expensive to prevent an oil spill than it is to clean one up”. The cause of the Russian oil spill in 2020 was old tanks. Had they been replaced in time, the price paid would have been far lesser.

When trying to prevent oil spills from happening, there are many resources online that are great educational tools, and they can vary depending on what you are doing. For example, NOAA has information on how to prevent small-vessel oil spills and the United States Environmental Protection Agency has a whole list of spill prevention, control and countermeasures

Living Life with Oil Spills

There are also ways that individuals like us can participate in preventing oil spills. You can sign petitions to prevent things like offshore oil drilling. Additionally, you can contact your local state legislators to fight for the health of our environments. These opportunities that help us fight for what we believe in do have an impact.

For example, the Surfrider Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s ocean, had a campaign to stop offshore drilling through the education of millions of people about the issue and by meeting with important people like the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. To learn more about what they are doing, click here

We can also check to see what organizations we are supporting. To show companies and organizations that we are serious about protecting our environments from more than just oil spills, we can put our money where our mouth is. The best way to find out if the companies you are supporting is to do research online.

For example, Ford has a sustainability report on its website that shows its efforts in carbon neutrality and sustainability. A good way to choose the organization you would like to align yourself with would be to look at their sustainability report, awards they have won, and accolades they have achieved. Additionally, you can look at their associations and affiliations.

Today’s Actions will be Tomorrow’s Results

realistic view of an oil spill

Unfortunately, the Russian oil spill in May 2020 is just one oil spill out of many. Oil leaks into our water bodies multiple times a year, every year. We may feel powerless to stop it, especially since these large companies allow these things to happen.

However, that’s not the case. With articles like this one and readers like you who want to be educated and part of the solution, we are not powerless. We have the tools and the knowledge to make a difference. 

The fact is, the ocean needs our help. The ocean doesn’t have the ability to fight for itself, and neither do all of the plants, organisms and animals that live in the ocean. They are the ones being directly affected by human choices and human accidents. They need us to put in the work and stop things like oil spills and other environmental disasters.

It is great that we as a society have worked hard to come up with solutions in cleaning up oil spills, but perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on prevention. For example, had there been more importance placed on buying new storage units, the Russian oil spill probably wouldn’t have happened. 

Organizations like the Surfrider Foundation have shown us how putting in the work has paid off. They are examples of those who fight for the oceans and try to make this world better for all, starting with the oceans. They fight for the oceans by putting information out there to educate others, talking to officials, and creating projects that we can be a part of. 

There are so many issues that need to be addressed on World Oceans Day. It’s sad to think that there are so many, especially since we now know how important the oceans are to our daily lives even if we don’t live near the coast.

Don’t let this World Oceans Day pass by you. Share this blog highlighting the issues surrounding World Oceans Day and make them known to others. Education and awareness are the first steps to changing the world and making people care about important problems. Don’t let the idea that individuals are powerless stop you from doing your bit for the environment. While we are better together, everyone can educate those around them and participate with others to build a better future.

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Olivia deGregory

Written by Delaney Zook