Russia opens criminal investigation over Far East marine pollution

Nearly all marine life in Kamchatka's Avacha Bay died and a substance similar to oil was found in its waters.

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A member of Russian Investigative Committee works on the shore of Avacha Bay following the recent discovery of high pollution levels off the coast of Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, in this handout picture released October 7, 2020. (Investigative Committee of Russia / Handout via Reuters)

MOSCOW — Russia on Wednesday opened a criminal investigation to establish the cause of unexplained toxic pollution off its far eastern coast that has killed sea creatures and led to their carcasses being washed ashore.

Greenpeace warned last week of an ecological disaster in waters off the Kamchatka region, a volcanic peninsula on the Pacific. Conservation group WWF has said the pollution was very likely caused by a highly toxic soluble substance.

Scientists told regional authorities on Tuesday that nearly all marine life on the seabed of the Avacha Bay — located on the Kamchatka Peninsula’s southern coast — had been killed, with only a small number of large fish, shrimp and crab surviving.

On the other side of the Bering Sea, Alaska waters have also seen die-offs of marine species, albeit less extensive and with no indication that human-made pollution was the cause.

[Ice seal die-offs in Alaska have spurred a government investigation]

The Investigative Committee, a Russian equivalent of the U.S. FBI, said dead marine life had washed up on the shore from Sept. 1 to Oct. 3, and that the water had been found to contain oil components including phenol and had changed color.

It did not name any suspects in its investigation.

Aerial footage of the area circulated online showed the water had turned yellowish in some places.

The law enforcement agency said the pollutant closely resembled industrial oil or a similar substance. It said it was examining all possible sources of the pollution, including a nearby facility used to store pesticides.

It said it was investigating suspected violations in the handling of environmentally hazardous substances and the pollution of the marine environment.

[Mysterious waves of marine trash, much of it Russian, wash ashore on Alaska’s Bering Strait beaches]

Dmitry Kobylkin, the minister of natural resources and the environment, said on Wednesday that those responsible would be punished.

“There cannot be any compromises here, as with the situation in Norilsk,” he said, referring to a major fuel spill in the Russian Arctic in May. “Citizens’ environmental well-being and the preservation of ecosystems come first.”

Kobylkin initially said water and land samples showed no evidence of elevated levels of oil or oil products and that the pollution did not appear to be manmade in origin.

Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Anastasia Lyrchikova; Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow, Polina Devitt and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber.