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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Perilous Pipeline

Air Date: Week of November 25, 1994

Host Steve Curwood interviews the outgoing Alaskan Governor Walter Hickel. He just returned from Siberia where he witnessed firsthand the damage from the vast Siberian pipeline oil spill. Hickel says it could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up and repair.

Transcript

CURWOOD: In August an oil pipeline in Siberia failed, causing a massive oil spill that may well dwarf the Exxon Valdez disaster. News about the spill, including its exact size, has been hard to come by, partly due to the remoteness of the area and Russian secrecy. Alaska's governor Walter Hickel recently visited the spill on behalf of the Northern Forum, an organization of 24 circumpolar governments, of which he is the Secretary General. Governor Hickel is back now from Siberia, and calling for fast action from the US and other governments.

HICKEL: It was a situation that, on our side of the world, we'd have been out there cleaning it up with massive equipment. And there literally wasn't that much going on, hardly anything.

CURWOOD: Does it look recent? Or this has been going on for some time?

HICKEL: Well, I think they told me it started leaking several months ago, and they got down to it about August. And they're still pumping oil through there. And I think the problem is that even some of the folks in the upper government of the United States don't quite understand the Arctic.

CURWOOD: Well, some have told us that if you do clean-ups there that you'll damage the permafrost. That one has to be very careful -

HICKEL: No, that's not true at all.

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

HICKEL: Permafrost is the best protection you can get and the best time to clean it up.

CURWOOD: What about the heavy equipment? Won't it break it up?

HICKEL: No. We do all our drilling and everything on the permafrost, and so you don't break permafrost up. Permafrost goes down maybe 2,000 feet.

CURWOOD: Please, look at your crystal ball and give me a dollar amount what's needed here. The pipeline first, and then the clean-up.

HICKEL: Well that would be kind of hard. I just don't know for sure. But it's going to be considerable. It'll be hundreds of millions. Probably.

CURWOOD: Who's going to pay for it? They can't afford it.

HICKEL: Well, the exporting of the oil itself, I think that can have a possible way to help pay for it. There might be some grants even from Arctic countries that are around there like Norway, for an example, because if you look at the globe this could get down to the Barents Sea. It might be remote, but it could. And then it would go east, past Norway, and hit those rich fisheries areas. So these are all the things that are possible, and these are all the things that we have to take care of if we have a spill like that in the Arctic, in our part of the Arctic.

CURWOOD: I wanted to ask you, from what you've seen in Russia, how did this make you feel about the potential for a catastrophic spill in our own Arctic, in Alaska, your state?

HICKEL: Oh, we have, without a doubt, I've toured the world Arctic many times. Prudhoe Bay, for an example, is the finest environmental production on earth barring none, Arctic or sub-Arctic or just temperate zone.

CURWOOD: The Bureau of Land Management recently had a team of experts audit the condition of the Alaska pipeline. That report called the pipeline a disaster waiting to happen. Are you concerned that if something pops there?

HICKEL: That's not true. We've been pumping oil out there since 1977 and 8. The design of that is excellent. Three hundred fifty miles of that pipeline is above ground. If they have a 5-gallon spill it's monitored; they know it. Prudhoe Bay's a great example of how to do it right. I'm not saying that because I'm governor of Alaska; I'm saying that because I've traveled the world Arctic.

CURWOOD: If this spill had happened in the United States or Canada or Europe it would be, you know, big on the Nightly News for a long time. Are you worried that the Russian citizenry is pretty quiet on this?

HICKEL: Well it's just the system. I've been working with the Russians for nearly, over 30 years. And the system is just a little different. They're proud people, they're trying to solve their own problems, they don't necessarily, many times, want to ask for help. They want you to understand them, they always figure they're going to be misunderstood, and that's why they kind of have that closed system.

CURWOOD: And have we misunderstood them about this spill?

HICKEL: About this spill, no. I think the spill is bigger than they quite realize or are talking about. And I'm suggesting, tell the world what happened, the world will come in and try to help them out, and help solve the problem. And I think that's part of the solution to the problem.

CURWOOD: Alaska governor Wally Hickel recently returned from surveying the massive oil spill in Usinsk, Siberia.

 

 

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