On May 29, 2020 a fuel reservoir at a power plant near Norilsk, Russia collapsed, causing the spillage of 20,000 tons of diesel into the water and soil inside the Arctic Circle. According to the BBC, the spill has contaminated a 350 sq km area.
The plant in question belongs to a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.
According to Greenpeace, this is the first spill of such a large scale in the arctic circle. Greenpeace has compared the oil spill to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989, which cost the company more than $6 billion, and the effects of which can still be observed today.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a national state of emergency in order to call in more resources for cleanup efforts.
An intermunicipal level emergency mode has been introduced in the Russian cities of Norilsk and Taimyr. Oil products have been discovered in the Ambarnaya and Daldykhan rivers, leading to a regional response regime, as the oil spills towards the sea.
According to NBC News, during the meeting, regional governor of Krasnoyarsk, Alexander Uss, said that he was not made aware of the spill until two days after the accident, when “alarming information appeared in social media.”
President Putin criticized the head of the Norilsk Nickel subsidiary that owns the plant, NTEK, over a delay in reporting the accident. According to The Guardian, during a video conference meeting with head of NTEK, Sergei Lipin, Putin asked him, “Why did government agencies only find out about this two days after the fact? Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media? Are you quite healthy over there?”
The Russian Investigative Committee has launched three criminal investigations in relation to the accident, and The Guardian reports that one power plant employee has been detained.
According to Euronews, melting permafrost may be the culprit of the accident. NTEK has stated the fuel reservoir may have been built on soil that subsided with the warming of the underlying permafrost.
The BBC reports exceptionally warm weather has been causing the arctic permafrost to melt.
According to The Guardian, environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace have criticized this explanation, due to the fact that the risks to Arctic infrastructure posed by melting permafrost are publicly known, and should have been addressed months or years earlier to prevent this kind of accident.
Clean up efforts are already underway, and as of June 9, 2020, the Russian Ministry of Emergency states that 3,000 cubic meters of diesel mixed with water have already been collected. One of the biggest obstacles is northern winds, which push the spill further and further along the rivers, meaning that people and equipment have to constantly be on the move.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, “The consequences of the accident are threatening in terms of health and lives of local communities, they damage ecosystems, causing perish of fish and birds.”
According to Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog, Rosprirodnadzor, clean up efforts could take 5 to 10 years and cost the equivalent of $1.5 billion.