On May 29, the Norilsk-based CHPP-3 combined heat and power plant, owned by the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company (a member of the Norilsk Nickel Group conglomerate), suffered the loss of a diesel fuel tank, resulting in a spill of approximately 21,000 tons of fuel. The disaster, which contaminated an area of 180,000 square meters in the Russian High North (Interfax, May 29), is the largest such incident since 1994, when a similar event in the Komi Republic caused a loss of more than 21,000 tons of fuel in the Arctic region. Speaking of last month’s accident, the head of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), Svetlana Radionova, noted, “[T]his is not tens, but potentially hundreds of billions of rubles’ worth of losses” (Vpk-news.ru, June 4). In turn, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov stated that Moscow’s plans in the Arctic are “ambitious,” since the region is essential for Russia’s socio-economic development (Rosbalt, June 8). Hence, one can expect that, aside from some conspicuous gestures by the authorities, the deeply rooted reasons for the disaster at the CHPP-3 facility will not be properly investigated.
According to the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, the incident in Norilsk caused significant damage to local aquatic biological resources, and it will take time to ascertain its actual impact (TASS, June 18). The former head of Rosprirodnadzor, Oleg Mitvol, has claimed that a cleanup of the disaster site will require more than 100 billion rubles ($1.42 billion) and at least 5–10 years for the local environment to recuperate (Znak.com, June 3). The governor of the surrounding Krasnoyarsk Krai, Alexander Uss, admitted that “the fuel has contaminated [Lake] Pyasino […] it is imperative not to let it spread to the Pyasina River, which flows further north” (Interfax, June 16). Lake Pyasino is a freshwater lake, which is connected, via the Pysina River, with the Kara Sea. According to Vladimir Kirillov (of the Institute for Water and Environmental Problems at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences), after the catastrophe “the lake is de facto dead” (Life.ru, June 4).
Aside from the actual environmental and economic damage, the second-most-discussed issue has been what actually led to the incident. As stated by Vasily Yablokov, an environmental expert with Greenpeace Russia, the main culprit behind the accident is climate change, which has led to the rapid melting of the underground permafrost in the Russian High North and the wider Arctic region (Rosbalt, June 5). The melting of permafrost leads to shifting soil and, consequently, structural damage in buildings and structures built on top of this heretofore perennially frozen layer (see EDM, September 11, 2018) At the same time, Alexey Knizhnikov (World Wildlife Federation–Russia) concurred with this statement but added that the catastrophe also resulted from negligence and violations of existing ecological rules/regulations. He noted that the power plant “should have been fortified with dams blocking the flow of [locally stored] toxic substances,” meaning that climate change is not the only reason that led to the catastrophe (Rosbalt, June 5, 2020). Meanwhile, Russian Security Council Secretary (and former head of the Federal Security Service) Nikolai Patrushev offered up quite an original interpretation of the incident: on the one hand, he acknowledged that the threats posed by climate change were clearly underestimated; but on the other hand, he warned that the disaster “could be used by those who are trying to discredit Russian policy in the Arctic region.” He added that Russia’s critical infrastructure in the Arctic region has flaws and may not be fully prepared to deal with a full spectrum of terrorism-related threats (Interfax, June 9).
Following the massive Norilsk chemical spill, Russian President Vladimir Putin urgently called on the legislative branch to prepare all necessary amendments to “prevent similar incidents from repeating themselves in the future” (Interfax, June 5). Predictably, the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office instantly launched an investigation, opening up four criminal cases and arresting the head of one of the CHPP-3 departments allegedly responsible for the incident. Additionally, the incident was classified as a “federal-level emergency.” A commission of the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision (Rostekhnadzor) visited the site of the accident and discovered “numerous violations of safety norms and regulations” (Interfax, June 23). Incidentally, the Norilsk Nickel Group (together with Rostekhnadzor) has pledged to conduct a thorough review of all its major infrastructural objects, particularly those that are related to fuel storage. This was made explicitly clear by the head of the company, Vladimir Potanin, who promised to “allocate billions of rubles” toward this objective and to “find and liquidate all the deficiencies” (Interfax, June 19).
Despite the above-mentioned high-profile measures, it would be premature to conclude that the situation in the Russian Arctic is likely to actually improve. First of all, the Norilsk Nickel Group has built up a notorious reputation for widescale pollution and breaking ecological rules. Notably, in 2016, the same CHPP-3 facility already suffered a similar, though then smaller-scale incident (RBC, June 5). No modernization of the local infrastructure was ever carried out. And despite promises from the corporate leadership, members of the inspection committee were not granted full access to the plant when they visited in early June 2020. (Sibreal.org, June 5). Incidentally, between 2017 and 2018, Rostekhnadzor warned the company about problems with CHPP-3 (RBC, June 5); yet, the company took no steps to address them. Given the political influence of the Norilsk Nickel Group’s executive board on the government, there is every reason to believe that the latest incident will have no practical impact as well.
Second, Norilsk—already considered Russia’s “most heavily polluted city” and ranked number seven worldwide (Ecobloger.ru, January 22, 2018)—is merely part of a much larger problem. All major Russian municipal centers located in the Russian polar regions (zone of permafrost), such as Vorkuta, Tiksi, Yakutsk, Magadan, Igarka, Anadyr, and Novy Urengoy, are ticking time bombs. These cities, by and large, all rely on Soviet-era infrastructure and require serious renovation as well as complete (and unbiased) assessments/inspections of their local critical infrastructure (especially oil, natural gas, and nuclear facilities). The prospect for such modernization seems highly unlikely: according to one study, widescale permafrost thaws across Russia could cost more than $80 billion in infrastructural damages—financial expenditures that Moscow can ill afford at present (Arctictoday.com, January 24, 2019).
Consequently, the Norilsk disaster will not be the last ecological problem to affect the Russian High North.