Could the ‘Norilsk Disaster’ Be the Harbinger of a Looming Catastrophe in the Russian Arctic? (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 98

Norilsk fuel spill cleanup operations (Source: Interfax)

*To read Part One, please click here.


A disastrous fuel spill at the CHPP-3 combined heat and power plant in Norilsk (owned and operated by the Norilsk Nickel Group) has resulted in massive contamination of the local environment and will likely incur huge financial expenditures related to the cleanup (Interfax, May 29; see Part One in EDM, June 29). Above all, the catastrophe could have detrimental long-term consequences for the ecology of the surrounding territories and seriously affect the health of the wider Artic region. For now, the most widely discussed topic pertaining to the calamity has focused on sussing out blame. The narrative most actively promulgated by the company’s top management and supported by some ecologists claims that the disaster was caused mainly by the detrimental consequences of climate change, which melts the permafrost layer upon which the local infrastructure is built. The second version, notably maintained by Alexey Knizhnikov (a WWF-Russia expert on ecological problems related to the oil and natural gas sector), argues that because “the thawing of permafrost is a natural and very long process […] some violations must have occurred during the exploitation of this object [CHPP-3]” (Vzglyad, June 4). While the authorities continue to deal with the consequences of the disaster as well as search for the responsible culprits, it is imperative to put the man-made disaster in Norilsk into a broader context, which suggests that the ecological situation in parts of Russia’s Arctic region and the High North is already close to catastrophic.

Most visibly, the incident at the Norilsk plant showcases a myriad of instances of various violations of environmental rules in the region. In late May, an inspection team discovered a huge unauthorized dump on the shores of Lake Lama—one of the largest lakes (318 square kilometers, and up to 600 meters deep) in Krasnoyarsk Krai—located on the territory of the Putorana natural reservation (TASS, June 2). Furthermore, June was marked by a series of additional smaller incidents that involved unintended discharges of fuel and oil products. On June 5, local prosecutors launched an investigation into an oil spill in Novgorod Oblast, close to the Valdaysky National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve site since 2004 (Interfax, June 5). On the same day, on the territory of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, approximately seven cubic meters of oil products poured out into the environment, causing some contamination of soil (Interfax, June 5). On June 8, in the Nenets Autonomous District, ten tons of oil spilled; while the damaged oil well has reportedly been successfully blocked, further cleanup of the incident was impossible due to extremely harsh weather conditions (Rosbalt, RIA Novosti, June 8). On June 21, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) reported another such episode in Sakha-Yakutia, where approximately five tons of fuel escaped. Details of the incident have yet to be revealed, but the leak occurred at an electric power station belonging to the Russian Hydroelectricity Company (RusHydro) (Rosbalt, June 21).

These and other such accidents have spotlighted another point of contention in the Arctic region: the growing dissatisfaction of indigenous peoples to Russia’s constant violation of environmental rules/regulations in the High North. Specifically, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Taimyr declared that it is preparing a petition to President Vladimir Putin, proposing the adoption of a federal program to strengthen the protection of the country’s northern indigenous peoples. The head of the Krasnoyarsk-based branch, Grigori Dukarev, stated that, were local environmental laws better able to protect the environment, “Nornickel [Norilsk Nickel Group] would have lost money… [Whereas,] we are losing our natural habitat that helps us to survive. For indigenous peoples, such an incident is a direct threat to our existence… The Russian Federation has to protect our interests.” Importantly, for approximately 10,000 inhabitants (indigenous peoples) of the basins of the Pyasina River and Lake Pyasino—areas severely affected by last May’s Norilsk disaster—these territories represent a traditional homeland and a source of subsistence. As noted by Dukarev, the environmental challenges faced by the region are a combination of the “Soviet legacy” (yet to be dealt with) and new developments. In turn, the president of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON), Grigory Ledkov, stressed that technogenic accidents in the region could seriously jeopardize the local ecology and incur significant harm on the wellbeing and health of locals (Kommersant, June 17).

A number of reputable Russian scientists and research institutions have also issued critical warnings, suggesting that if the Russian authorities fail to radically change local environmental policies, the Arctic region will face a range of existential challenges. For instance, scientists from the Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences have found, in a new study, that massive wildfires now taking place nearly annually in Siberia are changing the chemical composition of the Arctic Ocean, its biodiversity and ecosystem, as well as that of the adjacent river systems (TASS, June 1).

Moreover, research conducted by the Antistikhia center (which operates under the roof of EMERCOM) has ascertained that the erosion of the littoral landscape of the Kara Sea might have truly detrimental consequences. Namely, “degradation of the permafrost on the shores of the Kara Sea could further worsen the erosion process […] even today the coastline is losing between two to four meters annually.” If this trend persists, huge portions of the (near)Arctic region—including Chukotka, parts of Yakutia, the West Siberian Plain, as well as basins of the Indigirka and the Kolyma rivers, and the island of Novaya Zemlya—could be jeopardized. The most dangerous ecological consequences could result in structural damage or destruction of locally based oil, gas or even nuclear facilities (for example, the Bilibino Nuclear Power Plant). Moreover, the region is home to multiple military bases (, March 11, 2018).

If this negative scenario materializes (even in part), Russia’s ambitions related to the commercialization of the Northern Sea Route and the exploration of new oil and gas fields in and around the Arctic region will be derailed. From a strategic point of view, continuing negligence of the local ecology (directly stemming from Soviet practices and environmental nihilism) could have a devastatingly transformative effect on the entire northern polar region, extending well beyond Russia’s national borders as such.