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Freeze keeps oil spill from spreading

An Arctic snowstorm cloaked the scene of a giant Russian oil spill Thursday, obliterating traces of muck on the river banks and covering the impromptu network of booms and vacuums that apparently has succeeded in localizing much of the spillage.

On a bridge high over the 200-yard wide Kolva River, local newspaper editor Oleg Sultanov pointed down at the banks he said were shrouded with knee-deep smelly oil at the high point of the oil outflow from Sept. 28-Oct 2.

"Some chunks of oil flowing near the banks were two feet thick," he said. But now, three weeks later, the stench of oil was absent. The only thing that could be seen floating were chunks of ice as the winter freeze began.

Arctic winter has given this beleaguered region a respite. Once the ground temperature falls below 48 degrees, the mass of hot oil that sank into the permafrost solidifies like a lump of tar and cannot flow, explained Gennady Zaripov, chairman of Geneco, a local environmental company supervising part of the cleanup.

"Maybe our luck with this accident is that it was already beginning to get cold when it happened," said Zaripov. "But in the spring, when the snow melts and the creeks begin to flood, then the biggest danger comes."

Reports on the size of the spill from a broken pipeline vary widely. U.S. Energy Department officials put it anywhere from 4.5-million gallons to more than 80-million gallons.