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With Fish Dying And Talk Of Rocket Fuel In The Water, Residents Of Russia's Kamchatka Want Answers

Fears That Rocket Fuel Behind Marine Disaster In Russia's Far East
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MOSCOW -- Surfers on Khalaktyr beach, a popular stretch of sand on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, knew something was wrong when, in early September, dips in the ocean resulted in stinging eyes and nausea.

"I almost went blind one day after surfing on Khalaktyr beach. Everything before my eyes was blurry and foggy," surfer Maksim Ionov wrote on Instagram. "Then the same thing began happening to other surfers."

The water had become foul-smelling and changed color, with a milky foam floating on its surface. Within days, dead sea creatures began washing up on Khalaktyr and nearby beaches along the Pacific Coast, jolting the local community into action.

"We began wondering what had happened, and posting images from the scene," Kristina Rozenberg, a local tour guide, told RFE/RL by phone. "It really scares us, because we live right on the ocean front."

Almost a month on, the cause of what many fear is Russia's latest environmental disaster remains unclear. Some suspect a fuel leak from one of the many ships that traverse the remote waters off Kamchatka, near the Bering Sea, with local ecologists citing a fourfold rise in the volume of petroleum products detected in the area.

Warnings Of 'Ecological Catastrophe'

The Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund said the decimation of marine animals suggests not only a surface contamination of the ocean but the release of a chemical that diluted in the water, threatening all life within it. Greenpeace has warned of an ecological catastrophe.

The presence of two military bases in the area prompted some to suggest rocket fuel had leaked into the sea. In a social media post on October 5, regional Governor Vladimir Solodov said a state laboratory in Moscow had found no traces of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine -- the chemical used as a rocket propellant -- in water samples from Kamchatka. He announced that a task force would study the situation.

But government accounts have been vague, with officials citing seismic activity, seasonal storms, and toxic algae as possible factors. Russian Environment Minister Dmitry Kobylkin dismissed the likelihood of a manmade disaster in interviews with Russian media, and suggested that the effects were not so dire.

A milky foam floats on the waters around Kamchatka.
A milky foam floats on the waters around Kamchatka.

"There's no catastrophe. No one has died or been injured," he said on October 5. The same day, Kamchatka's Health Ministry reported that at least eight people had received medical attention after coming in contact with the seawater.

In an interview with RFE/RL from one of the affected sites on Kamchatka, Greenpeace Russia's climate project leader Vasily Yablokov, who was spearheading the organization's fact-finding expedition, said the situation looked troubling.

"We saw foam on the ocean, and a strange film on the Nalycheva River," he said. "Weather permitting we'll continue gathering samples and send those we already have to Moscow, as soon as possible, so they can shed light on what happened here."

Latest Disaster

The alleged spill in Kamchatka is the latest in a series of recent environmental disasters in Russia that have prompted calls from green groups for an end to reliance on military and heavy industry in areas of the country vulnerable to ecological disasters and climate change.

Just last week, an oil spill prompted officials in northern Siberia to introduce a state of emergency while a cleanup operation took place. In May, another fuel spill near Norilsk, a city above the Arctic Circle, was blamed by officials on thawing permafrost that had caused pillars supporting a storage tank to collapse, releasing 20,000 tons of diesel into waterways and turning nearby rivers crimson.

Greenpeace denounced what it said was negligence by officials and compared the Norilsk accident, in scope, to the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska. The organization contended that inadequate precautions were primarily responsible for the spill.

For locals like Rozenberg, the notion that toxic chemicals may have contaminated the waters around them -- and even more the lack of reliable official information -- is fueling fear that Kamchatka's entrancing nature, the health of which they rely on for a living, may be in danger.

"We don't know how this affects us now or will affect us, our food sources, and our health," Rozenberg said. "We're all waiting for results of the laboratory tests. And some kind of information from the government."

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.

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