Russian officials flew to the northern region of Komi on Wednesday to try to stem the flow of oil from a broken pipeline that could have a disastrous impact on the fragile Arctic environment.
Estimates of the size of the spill varied widely, from a U.S. estimate of more than 80-million gallons to a Komi official who said the spill was 4.2-million gallons. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, the worst in U.S. history, involved 11-million gallons of oil.
Environmentalists said winter snow soon would prevent any cleanup of oil slicks blanketing vast areas of tundra in the remote north 600 miles northeast of Moscow.
"If something has to be done, it has to be done right now," said Valentina Semyashkina, head of the Committee for the Preservation of the Pechora River.
Oil leaking into the Pechora River could pour into the Barents Sea, which is directly south of the Arctic Ocean.
The minister for emergency situations, Sergei Shoigu, said that the leak had caused $20-million in damage but that there had been no pollution in the Pechora Basin.
Russian officials played down the significance of the oil leak, saying U.S. estimates of 80-million gallons were "fairy tales."
"That is what oil workers there produce in one month. It is stupid," said Nikolai Balin, head of the Komi state committee for environment. "The most plausible figure is (4.2-million gallons.)"
Efforts to clean up the pollution have been hampered by marshy ground and worsening weather. Russian television said 140 workers were using buckets and vacuum pipes to try to remove oil from 25 square miles of tundra.