The environmental disaster that threatens the Arctic

Article by Angelachiara Allegretti | Illustration by Guido Brualdi

On May 29, a tanker for refueling the Norilsk power plant, a Russian city located in the Krasnojarsk region, Northern Siberia, has released after an accident, about 20,000 tons of fuel and lubricants. The fuel spill has reached the waters of the Ambarnaya River, 60km long, one of the main Arctic rivers in the country. The consequences were so disastrous that the state of emergency was declared.

The river turned red across an area of 350 km2. This is Russia’s second most serious oil disaster after the 1994 incident, reporting 60,000 tons of fuel spill in the Komi region. President Putin has declared the federal state of emergency and heavily criticized the metal giant, Norilsk Nickel that manages the plant, for trying to hide the accident.

The responsibility of the accident

Norilsk is not new to these episodes. Data shows that here is produced 1% of the entire global emissions of sulfur dioxide, making Norilsk one of the most polluted places in the world. The credit for this bad reputation is certainly the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (NTEK), one of Russia’s most polluting companies since the 1990s.

Due to the lack of timeliness of the local authorities in communicating the incident, the first news was very confused and uncertain, postponing the proclamation of the state of emergency to a few days. Norilsk Nickel company, which controls the NTEK, stated that it could have been caused by collapsing permafrost. It seems that this was caused by a subsidence in the underlying soil, made friable by the premature melting of the arctic permafrost due to an unusually hot winter.

The company said it was doing all it could to clear up the spill and that it had brought in specialists from Moscow who has sectioned off the affected part of the river to stop the oil products spreading further.

Anyway, Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office started a criminal investigation with charges of violation of environmental standards, contamination of water and soil, and negligence in informing the central authorities of the incident. The mayor of the city of Norilsk, Rinat Achmetčin, was accused on June 1 of repeated negligence in handling the emergency. Moreover, the director of the power station’s turbine section, Vjačeslav Starostin, is in custody until July 31 and other employees are under investigation.

The environmental costs

Dmitrj Klokov, a spokesman for the Federal Agency for Fishery (Rosrjbolovstvo) described the accident as an ecological catastrophe and stated that it will take decades for the restoration of the ecological balance of the affected water system.

Greenpeace Russia has described the Norilsk accident as one of the biggest oil accidents in the Arctic. The Russian government should reconsider the current model of an economy based on fossil fuels and sanction the position of the Russian companies that evade full financial responsibility for environmental damage. The costs of the environmental damage are estimated up to 100 billion rubles and at least a decade of decontamination.

President Vladimir Putin also planned to change environmental legislation before the end of Parliament’s spring session, so that incidents like Norilsk’s will not happen again in the future. He also asked the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision (Rosprirodnadzor) to check on the condition of all structures similar to those of the Norilsk thermoelectric power station.

 

The lesser evil

Russian maritime emergency service spokesman, Andrej Malov explained that six containment barriers were placed to attempt to block the flow to the lake while attempting to pump fuel to the surface.

Natural Resources Minister, Dmitrj Kobylkin has reacted with indignation to Governor Uss proposal to burn the fuel, causing disastrous effects on the marine fauna and the Arctic Circle ecosystem. Instead, he proposed trying to dilute diesel with dispersants. He stated that only with a joint task force of the emergency ministry with the military support, could address the emergence.

President Putin has severely scolded the regional authorities and in particular, Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnojarsk region. The President was irritated by the negligence of the authorities that took two days to learn of the disaster, besides through video on social media posted by local people.

Aleksej Knižnikov, WWF Russia’s director for environmentally responsible business, stated that successful containment did not mean that toxic elements have not entered the lake’s water, meaning that barriers could not do much. He rather claimed that to minimize the damages, it would be necessary to pump out fuel along with water, but now there are no tanks for this in Norilsk.

Conclusion

The consequences of such accidents will reverberate for a long time, worsening the already precarious condition of the Arctic Circle. The damages of climate change are strictly connected to these kinds of events, so it is wrong to define these just as accidents: they depend on our actions.

Environmental safety should be a priority, by adopting a wise environmental legislation and by creating an alternative to diesel, like renewable energy. Indeed, the Norilsk region has a huge potential for wind and solar energy development.

This is considered the second largest oil spill in modern Russian history in terms of volume and could be a warning. If the permafrost is melting, buildings, structures for the storage of oil products, oil and gas pipelines as well as nuclear reactors are at risk. It is a warning to change the environmental policies of the oil companies, to ask them fewer emissions, to prevent the possible destruction of infrastructure.

It is important to point out that the accident could have been avoided if all industrial safety regulations had been observed during the operation of these plants.

This is the moment for consciousness and for understanding the tragic consequences for our planet. This is the moment to think about strengthening environmental control and preventing similar disasters in the future. We have not a second planet.

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