How to kill Kola Peninsula pollution and draw huge funds for it over dinner

smelting plan KMMC Inside the KMMC’s smelting works in the industrial city of Nikel. (Photo: Courtesy of Vladimir Voronov)

The Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, the most polluting industry in Northwest Russia, has made some stunning financial promises as Russia begins its Year of Ecology, but what that money would be used for remains smoggy. The answer might have come late last year over a dinner in Oslo.

Earlier this week, the KMMC’s press shop told the official Tass newswire that it planned to pour $460 million into modernization and development projects geared toward environmental “effectiveness” over the next two years.

That announcement followed on another promise of environmental investment by the KMMC’s parent company, Norilsk Nickel, itself a Russian industrial crown jewel polluting Northern Siberia. Officials there, again speaking with Tass, vowed to spend $4.9 billion “in the nearest years” on “ecological projects.” That money will come directly from Norilsk Nickel, which promised the investment in November.

All of this seems in line with a declaration to fund company-wide environmental responsibility made by oligarch Vladimir Potanin, Norilsk Nickel’s CEO, in December. He told Vedomosti that he would spend $14 billion over seven years to make the world’s biggest nickel producer an example of environmental responsibility.

vladimirpotanin Norilsk Nikel CEO Vladimir Potanin, (Source: Bornrich.com)

The KMMC, by itself, annually pumps 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air above Northwest Russia and Norway, and has been doing so since the fall of the Soviet Union when such measurements became widely available.

These levels routinely exceed acceptable pollution norms put in place by Russia. But fines are minuscule, officials who with monitor pollution are easily bribed, and disinformation about where the emissions come from is ginned up by phony environmental nonprofits in Russia. It got so bad that one mayor in Northern Norway tried to file police charges against the KMMC.

But lately, in addition to promising money, the companies themselves have also made sweeping vows to slash their heavy metal emissions.

In mid-November Norilsk Nickel made a surprising announcement that it would cut 75 percent of its pollution by 2020, followed shortly by the KMMC, which said it would drop its emissions by half before 2019.

As encouraging as these announcements are, however, the Russian press has illuminated no discussion of where or how, precisely, these enormous funds would be spent, and that makes environmentalists wary. It’s as if the process was deliberately opaque, leaving open the issue of precisely where to spend, in the KMMC’s case, $460 million.

The answer might have been something Sergei Donskoi, Russia’s environmental minister, slipped in during a dinner conversation in Oslo with his Norwegian counterpart in late November: A big revamp to install Best Available Technologies, or BAT, at the KMMC Soviet era facilities.

The Independent Barents Observer, a Norwegian-run news portal that spoke to Vidar Helgesen about the casual meeting, originally reported Donskoi’s second hand remarks second hand.

According to Helgesen, Donskoi had told him the KMMC would be one of a number of polluting plants in Russian that would host a pilot program for BAT.

Donskoi told him the timeframe for implementing these best technologies would come by 2019. That connects the free-floating dot of an interview Bellona had with the KMMC in November. In that, plant spokespeople said the KMMC would half its emissions by the same year.

What that has meant recently is wrestling with emissions from the KMMC’s “briquetting” plant, an industrial facility in the Kola Peninsula town of Zapolyarny producing pellets meant to absorb sulfur dioxide emissions. The challenge, then, is not to raise emissions in the complex’s second industrial town of Nikel, where it’s nickel-smelting works are located.

The briquetting facility, the plant reports, is supposed to help reduce overall sulfur dioxide emissions by 35,000 tons a year. The main concern now, is reeling in emissions in Nikel, which, despite efforts, polluted to the tune of 40,000 tons in 2015, which was up from the previous year.

Also worrying is a move of nickel refining all the way from Norilsk to the Kola Peninsula industrial town of Monchegorsk just kilometers from the Norwegian border. The KMMC has promised emissions there won’t rise, but again hasn’t specified exactly how that will work, saying only that “different technologies” will dampen future pollution.

Presumably, that would be facilitated by Donskoi’s Best Available Technologies plan that he discussed with Helgesen in Oslo. Without any fuller idea of KMMC’s plans for Russia’s Year of Ecology, environmentalists will have to pin their hopes on an after dinner mint.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no