RIGA - A Russian-owned pipeline in Belarus ruptured over the weekend, spilling diesel fuel in the Daugava and polluting the river near Kraslava, a town on the border with Belarus. Environmental officials said on March 26 that the fuel could be seen across a 20 kilometer stretch of river near Kraslava and that it was possible the spill will make its way downstream toward Daugavpils, Latvia's second largest city.
The March 23 spill occurred in the Vitebsk area and flowed into the nearby Ulla River, about 14 kilometers from where it feeds into the Daugava, or 130 kilometers from the Latvian border.
The 375-millimeter burst at a junction of oil pipelines in Belarus resulted in approximately 100 tons of diesel fuel being dumped into the Ulla. From there, the fuel flowed into the Daugava.
The oil product pipeline belongs to a subsidiary of Transneft, Russia's oil pipeline monopoly.
Vildis Avodins, general director of the state environmental service in charge of the clean-up operation, told The Baltic Times on March 26 that only a small amount of the oil products have reached Latvian waters. This is due to Belarusian authorities working around the clock to control the impact of the spill, he said.
"They said they would do what they could to stop it from reaching Latvia, and I really think that they are doing the best that they can," he said.
Still, due to a lack of technical resources and the rapid-moving water, some of the oil products have bypassed the Belarusian barricades and polluted the Daugava.
"It's not really big. Most of the spill was caught by the Belarusians. It is not a particularly large amount here now but the problem is that it is a very large territory affected [by the spill]," Avodins said.
He explained that the spill has affected such a large area because of the speed of the river's currents. The Daugava flows at a rate of 1.3 meters per second 's which amounts to 1,800 cubic meters of water flowing per second 's a speed that hampers efforts to control the damage.
Experts are using blockades known as "booms" to try to prevent the oil from spreading further downstream.
Booms are blockades made of plastic, metal, and other materials which are spread out across the river to contain the spill.
A number of booms from the coast guard service and the fire and rescue service's Ventspils unit have been transported across the country for this purpose. Once the spill is confined to a specific area of the river workers can clean out the oil products.
Because of the amount of work involved, the clean up operation will be costly. Although unable to give solid figures, Avodins noted that "it will cost a lot of money because many people are involved. It will take many days of hard work, which already began on Saturday [March 24]."
Belarusian authorities have been reluctant to give out information about the spill. Latvia was not informed of the spill until 11 a.m. on the morning of March 24 's 17 hours after it happened. Belarusian authorities were also slow to release information about the size and nature of the spill.
Vaira Vike-Freiberga's press department said that the president is closely following the situation.
Officials said the clean-up operation will most likely be able to prevent much significant long-term damage from the spill. "I don't think that there will really be so many long term effects because the amount of oil is not so large," Avodins said.
Authorities have not yet determined the cause of the accident.