Two years after a huge Arctic spill, the water in the river in Norilsk is still red from diesel fuel

Two years after an oil spill at a facility owned by Russian mining giant Nornickel triggered one of the worst environmental disasters in Arctic history, the company says the environment in the spill area is in a satisfactory condition.

Surveys by a visiting environmentalist indicate otherwise.

“Two years have passed, there have been some cleaning operations, but these dirty red substances are still in the ground and nothing has changed,” says Vasily Ryabinin.

He stands by a creek colored red by diesel fuel that spilled into the vulnerable Arctic ecosystem from a collapsed oil tank in 2020.

More than 21,000 tonnes of fuel dumped in tundra, streams and lakes when the tank tilted and cracked as a result of what was allegedly negligent maintenance by Nornickel and its subsidiary Norilsko-Taimyrsky Energy Company.

“Time flies, two years have passed, nothing has changed – red water is still flowing,” Ryabinin says in a video of the region.

The video was recorded just days after Nornickel announced that the environmental situation in the area was “satisfactory”.

According to the company, an in-depth study conducted by more than 70 researchers from 10 research institutes concluded that the cleanup of the region was successful and the local ecosystem is being restored.

The study included a wide range of tests on local waters, soil, botany, fish and wildlife, Nornickel said.

According to the leader of the research expedition, Fyodor Romanenko, the initiative aimed to collect “accurate, comprehensive and reliable research information based on a complex study of the current state of pollution in the waters of the river basin. Pyasina”.

The river was one of the waterways most affected by the spill.

“The results of the studies allow researchers to define the state of the ecosystem of the industrial center of Norilsk and the territory of the Taimyr Peninsula as satisfactory,” Nornickel said.

However, environmentalist and activist Vasily Ryabinin disagrees.

“Dear researchers, if you really want to check the real state of the ecosystem, you can just call me and I’ll show you where to check,” Ryabinin says as he stands on the bank of the red-colored stream.

Or maybe it’s just “useful soil,” the activist added in a tongue-in-cheek comment aimed at the mining and metallurgical company.

Nornickel is known worldwide for its reckless care for nature around its industrial facilities. The vulnerable Arctic environment surrounding its factories on the Taimyr and Kola Peninsulas has suffered severe degradation over the decades.

The diesel fuel spill added significant problems to the area’s already strained ecosystem. Several hundred people took part in the clean-up operation in the summer of 2020.

A large number of special containers were flown into the region and placed along the most affected rivers and streams. The spilled oil was pumped into the containers. In addition, the company has started building storage facilities that can hold up to 100,000 tons of polluted soil. However, floods, bad weather and harsh weather complicated operations.

Information about the situation was tightly controlled by authorities and Nornickel, and virtually no independent environmental experts were granted permission to enter the area.

A historic fine followed. In early 2021, Nornickel was ordered to pay a record sum of 146 billion rubles (1.66 billion euros) for damage to the environment.

This article has been adapted from its original version published by the Barents Observer.

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