Efforts to contain a huge diesel spill in Russia’s Far North have failed to prevent fuel from seeping into a nearby Arctic lake.
Regional governor Alexander Uss told journalists it is impossible to predict whether residue will spread further north into Russia‘s Arctic nature reserve after 20,000 tonnes of diesel spilled into a river from a power plant on 29 May.
The incident, which experts say will take water systems “decades to recover from”, happened in the Siberian industrial city of Norilsk, 1,800 miles (2,900km) northeast of Moscow.
Vladimir Chuprov, from Greenpeace Russia, says there are high chances the fuel will spread.
“This is the biggest accident with the highest-ever volume of oil products spilled in the Polar Arctic,” he said.
“If the diesel travels up the Pyasina river into the nature reserve, this is nesting time for 30,000 geese. The river is famous for the Muksun fish, there are reindeer and bears, the situation is quite critical.”
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a federal emergency after the fuel reservoir burst at a power plant belonging to a subsidiary of nickel and palladian giant Norilsk Nickel, turning two rivers deep red.
Norilsk Nickel says it has so far removed some 23,000 cubic metres of contaminated soil from the area and is working around the clock to remove the diesel from both rivers.
The company claims that state-of-the-art containment booms have protected Lake Pyasino and beyond that, the Kara Sea, from contamination which they say is at maximum permissible levels.
The company also says it believes the fuel container split as a result of melting permafrost and that it is now inspecting all other tanks across its enterprises to make sure they are stable.
Siberia and the Arctic have experienced some of the warmest temperatures on record and the leak underscores what can go wrong as Russia’s industrial ambitions in the Far North intersect with a warming climate, putting fragile Arctic ecosystems in the crosshairs.
Russia’s prosecutor general has called for inspections of all industrial installations situated on permafrost as a result of the incident.
That is potentially a lot of work. Sixty-five percent of the country sits on permafrost, the long belt across Russia’s North, and the country is warming at a rate of more than twice the global average.
Russia’s emergencies ministry says the clean-up should be finished within two weeks. Locals say it will be at least 10 years though before things are back to normal.
“Nornickel is trying to clean it up but I don’t think they’ll have 100% success”, says Grigory Diukarev, who is a representative for the Taimyr Krasnoyarsk regional association of indigenous minorities.
“This is the third accident on Nornickel’s watch and they didn’t come to any conclusions from the previous two. They are not telling the whole truth,” he added.
As with so much in Russia, it is hard to tell what is true and what is not – especially around the situation with Norilsk – as it is a closed city, built from the toil of gulag prisoners, its primary purpose now to service Norilsk Nickel’s industrial goals.
It is where Nadya Tolokonnikova of the protest band Pussy Riot grew up. Last year she released a single, Black Snow, about her hometown, highlighting the pollution from sulphur emissions she claims are part of daily life for Norilsk residents. She also wrote a letter to Mr Putin.
“Either we leave things as they are and we just die out”, she wrote in her letter, “turning our planet into places like Chernobyl and Norilsk, or we figure out how to build a technologically advanced civilisation with clean industries”.
One year on, as the Kremlin tries to claim that it has contained another crisis, COVID-19, environmental activists are demanding a post-pandemic rethink of Russia’s economic powerbase.
“This is a great chance for Mr Putin to invest in a green recovery package in order to avoid such a situation in Russia again”, says Mr Chuprov.
“To use this five trillion-ruble pandemic recovery package to grow new climate-friendly economics and sectors and not to support the oil industry anymore.”