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Enormous Russian Power Plant Oil Spill Heads for the Arctic Ocean

Enormous Russian Power Plant Oil Spill Heads for the Arctic Ocean
(Image: Modified color image of river ice meeting sea ice in the Pyasina river delta downstream from the Norilsk oil spill on June 8, 2020. Credit: Julien Seguinot, Flickr Creative Commons)

A collapsed fuel storage tank at Russian metal mining and smelting company Norilsk Nickel’s power plant is leaking oil in the Arctic north. The enormous spill has already traveled 12 miles and could reach the Arctic Ocean, the BBC reported this week.

Officials and environmentalists are calling the diesel oil leak near Norilsk, which began on May 29, “the worst accident of its kind in modern times in Russia’s Arctic region,” according to the BBC. More than 20,000 tons of diesel have already been released. Greenpeace Russia compared it to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989.

Norilsk Nickel produces palladium, nickel, platinum, and copper. The company released a statement that one of the storage tank pillars had collapsed due to thawing permafrost, the New York Times reported on June 4. President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency in the region.

This isn’t the company’s first environmental disaster, New York Times journalist Ivan Nechepurenko noted. “It was responsible for a ‘blood river,’ also in Siberia, in 2016, and one of its plants has belched so much sulfur dioxide, a major cause of acid rain, that it is surrounded by a dead zone of tree trunks and mud about twice the size of Rhode Island,” he wrote.

Even though Norilsk Nickel said it had deployed hundreds of workers to assist with the cleanup, floating barriers failed to prevent the oil from spreading to Lake Pyasino, multiple news outlets reported. The BBC described the freshwater lake as being about 45 miles long, serving as a basin for the Pyasina River that flows toward the Arctic Ocean.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Russian investigators had detained three power station managers in connection with the spill. Reuters said the company responded, “The power station managers are working with law enforcement officials, and would be much more useful on the cleanup site.” Today Russia charged Norilsk Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin with criminal negligence over the spill, according to Reuters.

Greenpeace Russia said that industrial companies in the country are seeking a moratorium on certain environmental regulations, including deferment on payment for fines until March 1, 2021. “Environmental control should be strengthened, and the operation of facilities should be under special control to prevent accidents, especially in the conditions of melting permafrost due to global climate change,” the organization said.

Norilsk Nickel was also one of 28 companies that the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark called out in 2018 for failing to provide human rights information.

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