Aug 6, 2020

Russia’s Arctic North hit with three Environmental Disasters

Kristin Kerr

At the end of May, over 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked from a power plant storage site owned by Nornickel, the world’s largest producer of palladium, and one of the largest producers of Nickel, platinum and copper into Russia’s Arctic North. Sadly, this isn’t the first time they have been featured in the news, and once again, it’s for quite an unfortunate reason. As if 2020 hadn’t already thrown a series of unfortunate events into the calendar year, the Russian Arctic has been hit with three environmental disasters… all within a one month time span.

The huge May 28 leakage in Russia’s Arctic North has polluted a large freshwater lake near Norilsk, the Ambarnaya River, and there is a risk it could spread into the Arctic Ocean. Norilsk is an industrial city in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, located above the Arctic Circle, east of the Yenisei River and south of the western Taymyr Peninsula.

Who’s to Blame?

Now when such tragic disasters like this take place, fingers get pointed very fast, and this accident is being blamed on mining company, Nornickel, run by billionaire Vladimir Putin. The leak first occurred on May 29, 2020 and started off by seeping into the soil and nearby rivers, causing waterways to turn bright red in colour, and not to mention the extreme pollution to Russia’s Arctic North ecosystem.

This accident has been reported the worst of its kind in modern times in Russia’s Arctic region, environmentalists and officials say. It wasn’t until four days later, on June 4, 2020, that President Vladimir Putin declared the accident a national emergency. From here, the Ministry of Emergency Situations sent personnel to the city to help out. Talk about concealing or downplaying the incident…

Now President Putin did promise to pay for all costs associated with the largest oil spill in Russian history; however, the damage has still been done, and sadly will take YEARS to undo. Approximately 14,000 square metres of land were deemed contaminated by the spill, and while clean-up has resulted in small progress, the area likely won’t recover for years to come. Costs for cleanup have been estimated around €130 million.

The United States even offered a helping hand when it came to cleanup costs. “Saddened to hear about the fuel spill in Norilsk, Russia,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “Despite our disagreements, the United States stands ready to assist Russia to mitigate this environmental disaster and offer our technical expertise.”

What Caused the Spill?

Though spills in Siberia aren’t unheard of, the May 29 spill is said to be related to higher than normal temperatures in Siberia (global warming?), causing soil to erode, resulting in damage to the foundation and cracks in the tank. Secondly, thawing permafrost had also caused one of the tank’s pillars to collapse.

June 28 Wastewater spill

Just one month following the first Russia Arctic environmental disaster, another situation related to mining giant, Nornickel took place. The company’s Nickel Talnakh enrichment plant was found to be pumping wastewater from a dangerously full tank into nearby tundra near Norilsk. How much wastewater you ask? Around 6,000 cubic metres mineral processing liquid…

Now most would assume a situation as tragic as this would be an accident; however, the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper published video footage from the spill claiming the factory had purposely discharged the wastewater into nearby wildlife areas. And of course, present Nornickel employees quickly removed any remaining pipes when emergency services arrived. Who knows what the true story really is, but Nornickel claims that it had pumped out purified water. The company also testified that the wastewater spilled over the edge of the basin due to heavy rainfall.

When environmentalists arrived at the scene, they detected the hoses in question, associated with a strong chemical smell from the water being pumped from said hoses into nearby areas.

Investigations are taking place with Russia’s natural resources agency to monitor unauthorized dumping of liquid waste into the tundra.

June 29 Landfill fire

We were serious when we said Russia was unfortunately hit three times in a month… Just ONE day following the wastewater spill, a fire erupted at an industrial waste landfill just outside of Norilsk; smoke was wafting toward the tundra. Nearby buildings were not at risk from the fire, and Nornickel claims it had not been owning or storing industrial waste at the landfill, and couldn’t be responsible for the accident. The landfill fire smoke didn’t exceed legal limits for toxic substances in the air; however as a third ‘freak’ accident in one month, Norilsk has really made its way as an environmental focal point in Russia this summer.

The landfill is undergoing inspection for compliance with environmental and fire safety laws.

Long term Effects

As mentioned earlier, disasters like these aren’t a simple road to recovery. It’s been emphasized that activists fear the toxic wastewater could potentially reach Lake Pyasino, a large freshwater lake in the north-central part of Russia which collects water from many rivers, including the Ambarnaya. Rivers that were affected during the May 29 accident may also feed into Lake Pyasino.

Environmentalists have taken water samples from the lake in efforts to look into potential pollution.

Current Actions

Most recently, related to the three disasters, the mayor of the Russian Arctic city of Norilsk, Rinat Akhmetchin, was charged with negligence. He resigned on Monday, July 20 and a criminal case was opened against Akhmetchin following the 21,000 tonnes of diesel leakage back in May.

Primary reasoning for the negligence charge was because he failed to coordinate and organize emergency measures to contain and control fallout from the spill. It was also released that Akhmetchin was suspected of having continued to use an unsafe fuel storage tank that had needed repairs since 2018. If found guilty, the charges could see the mayor jailed for up to six months.

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