Siberia fuel spill threatens Moscow’s Arctic ambitions

Max Seddon in New York

An enormous fuel spill in Siberia that turned two rivers crimson could cause more than $1bn in damage that lasts decades and threaten Moscow’s industrial ambitions in the Russian Arctic, environmentalists say.

President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency on Wednesday after a collapsing storage tank leaked 21,000 tons of diesel fuel into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers near Norilsk, home to industrial giant Norilsk Nickel, last week. 

The spill could cost hundreds of billions of roubles and pollute the aquatic ecosystem for more than a decade, according to Russian officials. Environmentalists say the disaster, one of the largest in modern Russian history, is comparable in scale to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, when 37,000 tons of oil leaked off the coast of Alaska. 

It also highlights the threat that climate change poses to industry in the Arctic, where temperatures well above the global average have melted the permafrost atop which Russia extracts the Siberian hydrocarbons and precious metals that drive its economy.

“This is a very serious signal for the Arctic,” said Boris Morgunov, dean of the ecology faculty at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. “Everything we build in the Arctic carries a far greater risk for the environment.”

Emergency workers at the site of the huge diesel fuel leak © via REUTERS

Environmentalists say the difficult conditions mean Norilsk, which said on Thursday it had removed nearly 1,500 cubic metres of contaminated soil and cleared 338 tons of diesel fuel, has a near-impossible task in clearing the spill as it mixes with the river.

Sergei Verkhovets, head of WWF’s Arctic programme in Russia, said native peoples had told him that putting up barges with booms to stop the fuel flowing into Lake Pyasino, which feeds into the Arctic’s Kara Sea, had failed. “The consequences of these disasters, especially in the north, are felt for a long time — they kill fish, pollute birds’ plumage and poison animals,” he said.

Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel and palladium producer, said the accident began on Friday after “supports which served for more than 30 years without problems” suddenly gave way. The company said it informed Russia’s energy ministry within 25 minutes.

Mr Putin, however, gave company bosses and officials a public dressing down on Wednesday after local governor Alexander Uss told him he had only learned of the extent of the disaster two days later from social media.

“Why did the authorities only learn about this two days after the fact? What, are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media now? Are you all right over there?” Mr Putin told Sergei Lipin, chief executive of NTEK, the Norilsk Nickel subsidiary that operates the power plant.

Law enforcement officials arrested the plant’s foreman, Viacheslav Starostin, over the ecological damage, and opened a separate criminal investigation into alleged negligence. 

Sergei Dyachenko, Norilsk’s chief operating officer, said that “abnormally mild temperatures could have caused permafrost thawing resulting in partial subsidence of the tank’s supports”. He denied that negligence could have contributed to the disaster. 

Abnormally high temperatures in recent years are warming the carbon-rich soil, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere that accelerates the pace of climate change further still, said Vasily Yablokov, head of Greenpeace Russia’s climate change division. 

Like those at Norilsk, a city of 180,000 located 300km north of the Arctic Circle, many of Russia’s richest deposits are located in isolated parts of Siberia. This requires companies to transport fuel to remote power stations and makes it significantly more difficult to launch clean-up operations.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure in the Arctic, and it’s all under threat,” Mr Yablokov said. “These accidents will happen again if you combine all those factors.”

The spill is only the latest environmental disaster to beset Norilsk, whose first smelters were built by prisoners in Joseph Stalin’s Gulag. Norilsk is the world’s largest emitter of sulphur dioxide, a component of acid rain, and admitted in 2016 that iron slurry from the smelters had turned the Daldykan river blood red.

Mr Morgunov said the disaster would probably force Russia to improve the safety of its industrial infrastructure in polar regions. “Business won’t like it, but it’s essential to save the Arctic,” he said.