Russia: Severe fuel leak in Arctic river

Russia: Severe fuel leak in Arctic river
This photograph taken on June 3, 2020, shows a large diesel spill in a river near the Arctic city of Norilsk. HANDOUT / MARINE RESCUE SERVICE / AFP

A subsidiary of the Norilsk Nickel Group is responsible for a serious fuel leak in an Arctic river. The company’s director was reportedly slow to raise the alarm.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency on 3 June 2020 and lectured the boss of a subsidiary of mining giant Norilsk Nickel after a serious fuel leak in an Arctic river.

One of the diesel tanks at a thermal power plant collapsed on 29 May, causing more than 20,000 tonnes of hydrocarbons to leak near the Arctic town of Norilsk. Officials at the plant, which is owned by NTEK, a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, have been slow to react and take measures to limit pollution, senior officials told Putin during a video conference, who then lectured NTEK boss Sergei Lipine. “Why were government agencies not made aware until two days after the fact? Are we going to learn about emergencies on social media?” asked Vladimir Putin. The governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, Alexander Ouss, said he had only learned of “the true extent of the situation” on 31 May, “after alarming reports on social media”. NTEK, however, denied that it had reacted late.

Support pillars would have sunk into the ground

Putin said declaring a state of emergency at the national level was necessary to mobilize more resources to limit the damage. The Russian Investigative Committee announced the opening of three criminal investigations and the arrest of an employee of the thermal power plant. A WWF expert, Alexei Knijnikov, told AFP that the NGO had alerted clean-up specialists after learning of the incident from its sources. “The volumes are huge. It was hard to hide,” he said. He said the company had not complied with safety guidelines requiring land dams around fuel tanks to avoid leaks outside the site.

The Ambarnaïa River, which is affected by pollution, will be difficult to clean because it is far from the roads and is not navigable because it is shallow, Ouss said. He added that this pollution is much greater than that in 2007 of the Kerch Strait, in the Black Sea, caused by the leak of 5,000 tons of oil and which had then required the intervention of the army and hundreds of rescuers. Because diesel is lighter than fuel oil, it should be able to evaporate in part but its cleaning is more toxic, he added. Russian Environment Minister Dmitry Kobylkin said that only the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations could manage the clean-up, “perhaps with the involvement of the army.”

In a statement, Norilsk Nickel said the tank was damaged when the looters “who had been supporting it for 30 years without difficulty” began to sink. This structure is built on permafrost and threatened by global warming, which melts ice. This is not the first environmental scandal affecting Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel producer: in September 2016, a river in Russia’s far north turned blood red after work at one of its metallurgical plants.