Human, Economic and Environmental Losses from Hydroelectric Dam Explosion

On August 17, a terrible explosion rocked a turbine hall inside the massive Sayano-Shushenskiy hydroelectric dam along the Yenisey River in the Khakassia Republic of Siberia within the Russian Federation. As of this writing, the death toll of workers may be as high as seventy-six. In addition to the questions of maintenance, safety and rescue efforts, and the economic impact of this event, issues of environmental impact are also prominent.

The explosion apparently released forty tons of transformer oil into the Yenisey River, an oil spill that could make its way downstream all the way to the Arctic if not contained. Debris from the explosion also polluted the reservoir. The Russian press reported that two trout farms were obliterated in the explosion, killing 200 tons of fish. Alexander Rassolov, director of the Sayano-Shushenskiy Biosphere Reserve, which stretches along the reservoir in neighboring Krasnoyarsk territory, reported August 18 to the Russian press that there had been no impact on the reserve because of quick action by reserve workers.

I visited the reserve in 2005 (and took the photos included with this blog) and wrote about it in an August 2008 article (“Personal Reflections on The Fate of Wilderness Reserves in Russia”, International Journal of Wilderness, Vol. 14 (2), August, 2008, pp. 39-43). Three factors are worth monitoring for readers of Talking Wild:

1. The direct environmental impact of the oil spill, explosion, and debris on not only the fish population of the reserve but also the wildlife dependent on the water and fish. We need to hope that Director Rassolov has accurately reported the status of the Reserve.

2. The financial impact on the Reserve from potential loss of patrons. Recreational fishing, boating, hunting, and hiking near the Reserve, as well as rental of cabins and backwoods hotels could be impacted. During my visit, I noted that a number of wealthy patrons from the companies associated with the dam (such as RUSAL aluminum) seemed to frequent the Reserve. The Reserve and the hydroelectric project have had an up-and-down history, with concerns raised in the past about the impact of the dam on the forest and fauna (much timberland was drowned and not reclaimed as the dam opened in 1978), but the hydro company has also sponsored some of the environmental monitoring in the region.

3. The impact on the regional economy due to loss of energy and the high cost of repair or re-building. Nature reserves in Russia have been suffering under the Putin regime from lack of financial support, with attempts to make them more self-supporting or shift the finance burden to local governments. This catastrophe can hardly be helpful to the downward trend in reserve support rubles.

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