SELIYAROVO, Russia -- Russian oil companies are illegally disposing of millions of tons of contaminated drilling waste, a practice that is wreaking environmental havoc by polluting northern rivers that drain into the Arctic Ocean, a new RFE/RL investigation has found.
The investigation by RFE/RL's Russian Service found that regulations overseeing the disposal of drilling waste are routinely flouted, with bribes being paid to inspectors, data being omitted from required paperwork, and major oil companies pressuring regulators to effectively look the other way.
"This story repeats itself every year," said one source in the oil industry in Khanty-Mansi, a western Siberian region that is home to some of Russia's biggest oil fields. The source spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retribution from officials for discussing the matter.
Even when government inspectors uncover violations, they regularly issue toothless orders for the companies to adhere to the law -- but don't compel them to clean up the sites.
"Inspectors come from Moscow, leave with suitcases of money, and issue orders like this: They don't demand that you eliminate violations, remove the waste, or reclaim the polluted tundra. They say, 'Write that you buried your shit, and continue to bury it in the same way,'" the oil-industry source told RFE/RL’s Russian Service, known locally as Radio Svoboda.
Illegal waste dumps on state oil giant Rosneft's fields in the Khanty-Mansi region alone could do more than $8 billion in environmental damage, according to one of three reports commissioned by the Russian Health Ministry and obtained by Radio Svoboda, which is releasing them to the public in their entirety for the first time.
Drillers use specialized fluids that include oil, water, and other chemical additives, depending on the soil type. The average well depth is 3,100 meters, though many are 5 kilometers or deeper.
On average, drilling produces around 560 tons of waste per 1,000 meters, according to oil-industry sources. According to data from Russia's Energy Ministry, 28.5 million meters were drilled in Russia in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
That would translate into almost 16 million tons of waste, according to the estimated average given by oil-industry sources. But according to Russia's environmental regulator, Rosprirodnadzor, only 5 million tons of this waste was generated in 2019 -- a discrepancy that suggests more than 10 million tons may have been disposed of illegally.
Environmental regulations require toxic drilling waste to be either processed or disposed of at special landfills that are designed to keep the toxins from leaching into the groundwater.
At many wells across Russia, the waste is stored nearby in temporary trenches known as holding ponds or "sludge barns."
In southern regions, the sludge barns are usually 4 to 5 meters in depth. In the north, however, where oil fields are located in swampy tundra and in permafrost zones, above-ground sludge barns are built and surrounded by earthen berms that can be up to 4 meters in height.
Depending on the size and depth of a well, multiple holding ponds for a single installation can occupy a combined area of up to 2,500 square meters.
According to regulations, the walls and the bottom of the sludge pits are supposed to be insulated to prevent toxic substances from leaching into groundwater and soil. But no regulatory agency, either on the regional or the federal level, inspects the integrity of the ponds or the insulation materials.
"There is very little data on the study of drilling waste," said Ivan Blokov, director of the Department for Programs, Research, and Expertise at Greenpeace Russia. ”But there is clear data on how the oil is poured out. Salinization of soils, oppression of plants, changes in the species composition of flora and fauna.”
"If it were one sludge barn, there would be nothing terrible about it. The trouble is that there are a lot of them," Blokov told RFE/RL. "And we can see how much oil the northern rivers carry into the Arctic Ocean."
Soviet oil drillers tried to incorporate Western technologies in the 1980s, but they were expensive, said Oleg Mitvol, a former deputy chief of Rosprirodnadzor. Instead, sludge was buried next to the wells.
In 1998, Russia adopted a law requiring waste to be processed and neutralized, or stored at special landfills.
According to Yevgenia Kiselyova, who worked in the Khanty-Mansi regional division of the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry, some oil companies, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky's Yukos, built properly designed holding ponds in the late 1990s; some of them are still functioning.
However, she said, "the rest of the landfills were just imitations, provided there were operating permits."
As of 2015, Kiselyova said, there were an estimated 10,000 holding ponds in the Khanty-Mansi region and 300 new ones appeared every year.
One official in the region's oil sector, who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, said oil companies frequently undercount their drilling sites and sludge barns. That assertion is supported by a 2017 inspection of Rosneft by Rosprirodnadzor, which found that on just one of the state oil giant's fields, it operated 34 well pads without the necessary permissions.
An oil-industry source who works in the Khanty-Mansi region told Radio Svoboda on condition of anonymity that there was no regulation whatsoever of illegally constructed well pads.
WATCH: A drilling-waste processing facility around 50 kilometers from the city of Nizhnevartovsk in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District. (Source: Radio Svoboda)
Other oil-producing countries try to minimize environmental damage from drilling waste by separating the soil from the hazardous liquids. A common technique is to burn off the flammable components of the drilling waste. But that is energy intensive and releases polluting emissions into the atmosphere.
Sludge is burned in Russia as well, but mostly that happens with waste collected from oil spills.
Other technologies in use include a German-designed process that uses low pressures to evaporate liquids, and results in relatively harmless output. Another, developed in Norway, is "thermal decomposition," in which oil products are separated from the sludge and can even be processed further into fuel oil.
Fictitious Waste Disposal
The massive and systematic burial of drilling waste in Russia is also carried out under the guise of recycling.
Since 2000, Russian drillers have been allowed to use other "mixed technologies" to mitigate the environmental damage from drilling waste.
In theory, the waste is mixed with sand, cement, and a specialized foam product to create a "building material" that supposedly can be used for construction or other industrial purposes. The process involves simply mixing the ingredients together in a trench to "lock up" the toxic materials into an inert form that prevents them from leaching into the environment.
In reality, however, this technique exists largely on paper.
Drillers just cover the waste with soil, costing them a comparative pittance -- 2,600 to 3,000 rubles ($35-$40) per cubic meter of sludge.
WATCH: Sludge barns near the shores of the Vakh River in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District in western Siberia. (Source: Radio Svoboda)
Even if drillers were using the "mixed technologies" process instead of just covering drilling waste with dirt, the resulting compound would not meet environmental standards.
In May 2010, recycled building material known by the commercial name "burolit" failed testing standards imposed by another regulator responsible for industrial quality-control, Rostekhnadzor.
The tests determined that oil products were found in the material at concentrations 12 times higher than permissible for the general environment, and some of the ingredients used turned out to be carcinogens.
Rostekhnadzor experts also concluded in 2010 that "burolit" was unusable for road construction, and that it was not even suitable to help construct new sludge barns.
Despite that fact, Rostekhnadzor later gave a one-year approval for the substance; in 2015, that approval was granted a second time.
In the early 2000s, there were attempts -- on paper, at least -- to recycle drilling waste into bricks for use in construction. In the Khanty-Mansi region, about 2,800 kilometers northeast of Moscow, Radio Svoboda visited one of the largest oil fields in the western Siberian region, where a facility supposedly producing these bricks was to have been installed.
Instead, however, the toxic waste was simply buried at the site.
Legal documents obtained by RFE/RL showed ownership of the plot, which dated back to a 2005 lease, was hidden behind a series of shell companies.
WATCH: Sludge barns on the territory of Rosneft-controlled Priobskoye oil field, where a facility recycling drilling waste into bricks was supposedly to be built.
After several inspections, Rosprirodnadzor won a series of court cases ordering the companies to remove the buried waste. However, the murky ownership of the land allowed the owners to drag out the legal process for nearly a decade. Last year, an arbitration court ordered one of the companies to pay a 3.6 billion ruble ($49 million) fine.
However, that company and the two others affiliated with it have all declared bankruptcy.
The sludge dumps at issue in those cases are located on Rosneft's 5,400-square-kilometer Priobskoye oil field. A court ruled that only the bankrupt companies -- not Rosneft -- were liable for the pollution.
Meanwhile, the buried waste remains in the ground, approximately 3.5 kilometers from the Ob, one of the world's longest rivers, which drains into the Arctic Ocean.
In northern Russia, nearly all oil production takes place in protected watersheds, which are set up to keep pollutants out of waterways.
A 2019 report by the national meteorological monitoring agency, Rosgidromet, found that as much as 17,500 tons of petroleum products flowed from the Ob into the Kara Sea, an extension of the Arctic Ocean, that year. One federally commissioned report found that as many as 90 percent of fish in the Ob Basin have deformations and chronic dysfunctions of the body, which lead to mutation and extinction of species.
In Russia, the process for mitigating environmental damage from toxic drilling waste also includes a system for reclaiming land that has been used temporarily, and then theoretically cleaned up and returned to its natural state. Drillers are obliged by law to carry out reclamation.
In Khanty-Mansi, however, a commission appointed by local authorities oversees the approval process for accepting and then redistributing the reclaimed land to, for example, timber farmers; in Yamalo-Nenets, further north, reindeer herders are frequently given such land.
Beginning in 2010, these commissions were required to involve the participation of Rosprirodnadzor, a nod to rising concerns about the growth of unregulated sludge barns and improper drilling-waste disposal. Kiselyova's department stopped signing land permits, and an increased number of fines and administrative violations were handed out for environmental violations.
In 2011, the regional natural resources agency appealed to the region's governor, as well as federal agencies, saying the situation with drilling waste in the region was catastrophic and asking for support in developing better legal and regulatory measures.
The following year, however, the CEOs of some of Russia's most powerful oil and gas companies co-signed a letter to then-Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, complaining that the excessive regulations on sludge and disposal would result in a slowdown in production -- and, they asserted, social turmoil.
Later that year, the regional branch of Rosprirodnadzor, the environmental regulator, began to actively impede the work of Kiselyova's department, she said.
She said her superiors began to close administrative cases her department had opened against oil and drilling companies. They also began to conduct inspections targeting Kiselyova herself and her subordinates for alleged impropriety, she said.
Kiselyova wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin in 2014 stating that the reclamation process was regularly abused or ignored.
"No one has actually seen any results of such forest reclamation, forest restoration, or forest ecosystem in its diversity," she wrote.
She took one company subsidiary to court to force it to comply with anti-sludge-dumping regulations, after which she said her car was shot up with an air gun and her tires slashed. She was subsequently fired.
Kiselyova fought her firing three times; three times a court upheld her dismissal.
Tatyana Kuznetsova, the head of Rosprirodnadzor's department overseeing waste disposal, told Radio Svoboda that the agency was no longer involved in the land-reclamation commissions.
Buried Report On Buried Waste
In the spring of 2018, a scandal bubbled up in the Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets regions after the Russian media outlet RBK obtained a letter from a Russian Health Ministry analytical center about the storage and disposal of drilling waste in the two regions.
The letter, addressed to the then-head of Rosprirodnadzor, Artyom Sidorov, discussed illegal dumps of supposedly recycled drilling waste that had been discovered in both regions on fields operated by Rosneft, LUKoil, and other oil companies. It was sent by the then-acting head of the Health Ministry's Center for Strategic Planning and Management of Biological Risks, which had conducted three separate studies over a two-year period at the ministry's behest.
On Rosneft oil fields in the Khanty-Mansi region alone these dumps totaled 20 million cubic meters, with estimated ecological damage that could total more than $8 billion, according to the letter.
The head of Rosprirodnadzor's regional branch in Khanty-Mansi was subsequently fired, as was Sidorov, the agency's federal chief. But the scandal largely fizzled out.
Rosneft told RBK that the analytical center did not have the authority to conduct inspections and that the company adhered to environmental laws in its disposal of drilling waste. LUKoil told the newspaper that it worked with licensed contractors that dispose of drilling waste in line with government regulations.
And the analytical center's full studies were never released to the public -- until now.
Radio Svoboda has obtained copies of the three reports -- totaling 630 pages that are not available online -- and is releasing them in their entirety as part of this investigation. Radio Svoboda managed to review the reports on a computer terminal and photograph each individual page, as it was not permitted to print them out or download them.
Below are several key takeaways from the reports, based on this review:
- Almost without exception, rivers and other bodies of water in the Khanty-Mansi and Yamal-Nenets regions are polluted. In some, the content of petroleum products is between five and 10 times above the maximum allowable limit, while the level of phenolic compounds is between 10 and 18 times the limit.
- While the main environmental damage from oil-production is linked to emissions, drilling waste has a damaging effect on the demographic situation and the health of the population in Russia's oil-producing regions, the authors of one report wrote. "The incidence of neoplasms, congenital malformations, and diseases of the blood and the immune system among the population living in oil-producing regions is 1.5 to five times higher than those in areas where there are no oil-production facilities," they wrote.
- Not a single technology for drilling-sludge processing was given a positive assessment by state environmental experts, one of the reports states. Surgutneftegaz, Russia’s fourth-largest oil producer, had used the "burolit mix" technique in the seven years prior to the report "despite the fact that the method...received a negative assessment" from state environmental experts, it states.
- The processing of drilling sludge is conducted not by the oil companies themselves but by subcontractors. "There are so many inconsistencies in the legislation that today it is virtually impossible to bring claims against oil-producing companies," one report states, referring to the part of the Rosneft field where drilling waste was supposedly to be recycled into bricks.
- The recycled drilling-waste product known by the name burolit loses its commercial properties almost immediately, making it essentially waste but in a much larger volume than before the start of the process. "The disposal sites for this waste are becoming unauthorized dumps," the authors wrote.
- The reclamation of sludge barns is a "nominal event," one report states, suggesting it is something that does not actually take place, and adding that "oil companies are extremely inattentive to this part of their activities."
Reached by Radio Svoboda for comment, the Russian Health Ministry directed inquiries to the Center for Strategic Planning and Management of Biological Risks, which compiled the reports. The center said it was no longer conducting such studies, while the Health Ministry did not respond to a follow-up inquiry.
Kuznetsova, the head of Rosprirodnadzor's waste-disposal department, told Radio Svoboda that she was not aware of the Health Ministry studies and therefore could not comment.
Asked about the discrepancy between the official figure of 5 million tons of drilling waste in 2019 and the estimated 16 million tons based on Radio Svoboda's discussions with oil-industry sources, Kuznetsova suggested the official figure is more accurate.
She confirmed, however, that the responsibility of monitoring and reporting the disposal of drilling waste lies with the oil companies themselves, which should determine the toxicity classification with the help of private laboratories and carry out the disposal based on the results.
Only spot inspections can reveal whether oil companies are following this protocol.
Rosneft, LUKoil, and Surgutneftegaz did not respond to requests for comment.