Hundreds of sea creatures’ bodies have washed up onto the shore in Russia’s Far East. All signs point to water pollution in what is the latest in a series of environmental catastrophes to befall Russia this year.
The contamination, first reported last month, has left a bubbly yellow sludge on the water offshore of the Kamchatka Peninsula, a land mass that sits between the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. It is currently being investigated by Kamchatka’s regional Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, but no one’s yet sure where it came from.
The thick ooze, which lies in sharp contrast to the region’s sparkling clear water, is now moving south along Russia’s coast. On social media, Greenpeace Russia activists said the yellow ooze is approaching the volcanoes of Kamchatka Peninsula, which are an internationally recognized World Heritage Site. In a tweet, they added that they obtained water samples from the region and found they contained petroleum levels four times higher than normal and phenol levels that were 2.5 times higher.
Locals have also found dead seals and octopuses on Khalaktyrsky Beach, a popular surfing location known for its black volcanic sand. It’s not just the animals who are getting hurt by the toxic mystery goo, either. Surfers and swimmers say that they’ve experienced clouded vision, stinging eyes, nausea, fever, and fatigue. On Twitter, Nikolai Lyaskin, who works for the campaign of Russia’s most high-profile opposition party leader Aleksei Navalny, shared a video showing a beach completely covered in dead sea urchins and starfish:
State officials are downplaying the threat the pollution poses. In an interview with RIA news agency, Russian environment minister Dmitry Kobylkin suggested that people affected simply use eye drops to deal with their stinging eyes while claiming that “no one was hurt” and that the pollution likely came from natural causes.
But experts, including biologist and seal specialist Vladimir Burkanov, disagree. In an op-ed published in Novaya Gazeta newspaper, he said the toxins may have come from leaks from stores of old rocket fuel stashed at military bases nearby. He noted that shortly before the pollution was first documented last month, a rainstorm brought heavy winds to the region, which could have caused the damage. In comments to Deutche Welle, head of local environmental nonprofit Sakhalin Environmental Watch Dmitry Lisitsyn agreed, noting that two military testing sites sit near the polluted site.
On Monday, Kamchatka Governor Vladimir Solodov told reporters that state scientists are investigating if that’s the case. He said other possible culprits they’re looking into are volcanic activity in the area and naturally occurring yet deadly algal blooms. In an Instagram video on Tuesday, he added that the contamination is subsiding due to the ocean’s ability to maintain homeostasis, but that the meticulous investigation will continue.
The incident comes just months after a power plant above the Arctic Circle ruptured, spilling 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into Russia’s Ambarnaya River. Then, too, environmentalists criticized the government for downplaying the threat. A massive mining spill also turned a river red in Siberia this summer as well. And let’s not even get started on the climate change-fueled wildfires that have scarred the region.
Kamchatcka is one of Russia’s most remote and lush areas, known for its beauty and wildlife. In a statement, Greenpeace Russia pushed the Natural Resources Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Prosecutor General’s Office to not only investigate the incident there, but also pay to clean it up. The region, the group said, is facing a potential “ecological catastrophe.”