Russian Roulette

The Western Pacific gray whale, once thought extinct, clings to life in a remote Siberian sea. Biologists fear their research is serving as cover for massive oil drilling that could wipe out this lost tribe once and for all.

"We cannot yet determine, however, if these are from one or several individuals," he says.

Brownell says the gray whale meat turning up in the Japanese markets appears to be from the whale illegally hunted in 1996.

Whether Weller and his team will get a chance to work on any of the puzzles surrounding the Western Pacific gray whale, and especially the phenomenon of the "skinny whale," appears to be up to the oil consortium Sakhalin Energy Investment Co. A spokeswoman for Sakhalin Energy says the company intends to continue funding whale research at Pil'tun but hasn't yet selected the contractors for the 2001 season.

Natasha Barannikova and Dimitri Lisitsyn spearhead Sakhalin's only environmental group -- Sakhalin Environmental Watch.
John Dougherty
Natasha Barannikova and Dimitri Lisitsyn spearhead Sakhalin's only environmental group -- Sakhalin Environmental Watch.
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk's housing stock is deteriorating.
John Dougherty
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk's housing stock is deteriorating.


Sakhalin Energy Investment Co. offices are housed in a new six-story, earthquake-proof building in downtown Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the province's capital and largest city, located near the southern end of the island.

Security is tight -- television monitors, fortified entryways, and guards greet visitors. The imposing entrance stands in sharp contrast to fading chalk drawings etched on the street in front of the building beseeching the company to protect the Western Pacific gray whales. The art protest last August was arranged by a local environmental group, Sakhalin Environment Watch.

Dennis Royal, Sakhalin Energy's health, environmental, and safety manager at the time, sets a strident tone for the interview at the outset, complaining how journalists focus too much on environmental issues.

"When journalists call and want to talk to us about environmental issues, I'm not always happy to do so," says Royal, who has since left the company. "It always surprises me that you don't pay as much attention on the impact we have on the people or the lifestyle on this island.

"It's always the environment," he says. "It's very important. But it always seems to be one-sided."

It's nearly impossible to overstate the magnitude of the potential economic impact of Sakhalin's offshore oil and gas reserves. This remote Russian outpost, seven time zones away from Moscow, is now the country's second-largest region for foreign investment, trailing only Moscow.

Sakhalin Energy represents the largest foreign investment in the Russian Far East.

Whether the Russians on Sakhalin will profit from the latest energy boom to sweep their island is uncertain. The onshore oil industry, one of the oldest in Russia, generated little wealth for the average Russian during communism and left an environmental catastrophe in its wake.

So far, there is little indication that the average Russian is benefiting directly from the offshore oil bonanza. Many of the skilled laborers working on the Molikpaq are foreigners, and Sakhalin has had a difficult time producing qualified companies to bid for highly technical oil-industry contracts.

While the agreements signed between the United States and Russia stipulate that Russian contractors should get 70 percent of the work, so far, Russian companies have been awarded less than 20 percent because they lack the expertise.

Sakhalin Energy's Royal says oil revenues have helped fund significant highway improvements on the island in the last few years. But there is no stipulation that the Sakhalin government or the Russian national government must spend its share of oil revenue on the people who live there.

Despite some recent projects, the economic and environmental conditions on the island are dreadful by Western standards.

The water-supply system in the capital city is poorly maintained and polluted. Pipes in the system are old; tap water is undrinkable, even when boiled. Viruses, such as hepatitis A, are found in the city's water.

Air pollution is worsening as coal-fired electric-generating plants blanket the capital city with a fine, black dust. Automobiles spew uncontrolled emissions. The average level of benzene in the air of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is 10 times the allowed level.

Domestic-waste processing and recycling are not practiced in the region. The only type of waste disposal for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is periodic burning of the huge city dump at the edge of the city. The sewage system fails during frequent power outages.

Compounding the problems are the geography and the weather. The region is dotted with active volcanoes and is frequently rocked by major earthquakes. The island is slammed by powerful winter storms that paralyze the region's few roads.

As bad as the environment is, the economy is worse.

Schoolteachers go unpaid for months at a time. The military frequently fails to pay its bills to local suppliers, as well as its soldiers. Dodging taxes is a national pastime, leaving governments strapped.

The Sakhalin economy is based on fish, fish processing, logging, and oil and gas. The island is the third-largest producer of fish products in the Russian Far East. Seafood and timber are exported mostly to Japan, as well as to other Asian countries. The island's onshore oil industry is nearly depleted, leaving in its wake a mess of ruptured pipelines and contaminated lakes and rivers.

Illegal fishing and logging extract untold amounts of the island's resources. Many raw materials are sold on the black market -- which hinders the region's attempt to create processing industries that will bring higher-paying jobs.

Residents of Sakhalin need a minimum of about $55 a month to get by, according to recent data from the Sakhalin Regional Administration for Labor. But one out of three inhabitants of Sakhalin and the adjacent Kuril Islands lives on less than that. By comparison, workers in U.S.-owned factories in Mexico earn about $120 a month.

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