Russian Arctic oil spill pollution: clean-up will take ‘years’

Pollution in the Russian Arctic: clean-up will take 'years'
A floating dam set up to limit fuel pollution in the Ambarnaya River in the Russian Arctic, June 10, 2020 AFP - IRINA YARINSKAYA

Three people were arrested on Wednesday for their role in the unprecedented pollution of Russian Arctic waterways, which will take “years to clean up” following a fuel leak from the tank of a thermal power plant.

Transneft Siberia’s director general, Victor Bronnikov, who is in charge of part of the clean-up operations, told AFP that if the situation appeared to be “stabilized”, the pumping of pollutants would last for at least eight to ten days.

But “complete cleaning will take years,” he warned, as special products will be dispersed to decompose or absorb diesel that could not be pumped after spreading to this swampy area in the spring.

Transneft employees put pumps into the river to suck up dirty, red-coloured water held back by floating dams. It is then stored in vats installed at the site, AFP journalists found.

Crews access the site by helicopter and travel there by tracked craft or inflatable boat.

On the judicial front, the head of the company in charge of the diesel tank that gave way, Pavel Smirnov, the chief engineer Alexei Stepanov and his deputy Yuri Kuznetsov were arrested, the Russian Investigative Committee announced.

The three managers of this subsidiary of the large Russian mining group Norilsk Nickel face up to five years in prison.

They are accused of continuing to operate the tank without carrying out the repairs that were established in 2018.

Climate change –

On 29 May, 21,000 tonnes of fuel from the reservoir of a thermal power plant spilled into Ambarnaia and the land near the river, dyeing the rivers purple.

Russian President Vladimir Putin then declared a state of emergency.

On Tuesday, the governor of the territory concerned claimed that the pollution had reached Lake Piassino, from Ambarnaia, and raised the possibility that it would spread to the Arctic Sea of Kara.

Norilsk Nickel, for its part, denied the pollution of this lake.

The company believes that the accident was probably caused by the thawing of permafrost, as a result of climate change, which would have caused the collapse of the pillars supporting the tank.

Its melting under the effects of global warming is seen in Russia as a major challenge because it weakens all cities and infrastructure, including mining, gas and oil, built on it for decades.

Norilsk Nickel acknowledged that the condition of the permafrost has not been monitored to date, announcing a full audit of its infrastructure.

The clean-up is involving nearly 700 people, the Ministry of Emergency Situations said.

According to The Director General of Transneft Siberia, Victor Bronnikov, interviewed by AFP, the first effects on the ecosystem of this sparsely populated region have already been observed.

“Our workers saw dead ducks. I myself saw a dead muskrat,” he said, noting that any animal that came into contact with fuel was “definitely condemned to death.”

Nevertheless, he assured that there were no “mass deaths of animals”.

The accident is considered one of the worst due to hydrocarbons in the Russian Arctic, a fragile region where mining, gas and oil are numerous and pollution a growing problem since Soviet times.