Russian diesel fuel spill threatens fragile arctic ecosystem


Nirana (Flickr)

A power plant owned by Norilsk Nickel spilled 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into an arctic river.

Ole Olafson, Reporter

A subsidiary of one of Russia’s largest polluters recently caused a biological disaster on par with the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill in 1989.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in Northern Siberia after learning about the massive oil spill on Sunday.  According to a New York Times article by Ivan Nechepurenko, the spill actually occurred days earlier, on May, 29, after the collapse of a large diesel storage tank at a power plant near Norilsk.  Over 20,000 tons of fuel has reportedly leaked seven miles from the power plant and into the Ambarnaya River, turning it a pungent red color.

Putin was reportedly angered by the slow reporting of the disaster. The Russian Investigative Committee have detained the plant’s manager, Vyacheslav Starostin.

The power plant is owned by Norilsk Nickel, the largest producer of nickel in the world and one of Russia’s worst polluters.

Nickel production apparently pollutes in three different ways.  It releases large amounts of sulfur dioxide and particles of heavy metals into the atmosphere.  In 2009, Norilsk Nickel was responsible for 25% of Russian sulfur dioxide emissions.  Sulfur dioxide mixes with precipitation in the atmosphere to create acid rain.  The Norilsk Nickle factory is reportedly surrounded by a zone of dead trees and no vegetation twice the size of Rhode Island

Nickel production also pollutes surface waters by discharging polluted wastewater directly into bodies of water.  Lake Pyasino, into which the Ambarnaya River flows, is reportedly completely devoid of fish, likely a result of surface water pollution.

It also pollutes groundwater through the leaching of chemicals through the soil.

Reportedly, hundreds of people from the company and the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry are working to clean up the spill, but have only been able to recover around 340 tons of fuel.

“The incident led to catastrophic consequences, and we will be seeing the repercussions for years to come.  We are talking about dead fish, polluted plumage of birds and poisoned animals,” said the coordinator of Arctic projects for WWF Russia, Sergey Verkhovets, in a statement.