Northwest Russia polluter posts impressive cuts in harmful emissions

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

In a surprising development, the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company –which for decades has stubbornly fouled air over Northwest Russia and Scandinavia – last year reduced its emissions of harmful sulfur dioxide by more than 20 percent.

The KMMC, a daughter company of the giant Norilsk Nickel, reported last week that its sulfur dioxide emissions for 2016 totaled 119,700 tons, which is 35,000 tons less than the previous year.

The new emissions figures seem to reverse a rise in the toxic heavy metal pollution that began in 2011. That year, the KMMC posted figures as high as 134,000 tons a year. They rose in subsequent years, plateauing at a towering 154,900 tons in 2015.

The fall in pollution might also indicate that a promised $14 billion infusion into modernizing and cleaning up Norilsk Nickel’s geriatric Soviet-era facilities is hitting its mark. The specifics of where that money is going remain unclear. But the company has promised to slash sulfur dioxide pollution on the Kola Peninsula by 90 percent before 2023.

frontpageingressimage_Nikelair.jpg Wastelands surrounding the Kola Peninsula industrial town of Nikel. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen for Bellona) Photo: Bellona Archive

Emissions from the KMMC have for decades been a source of tension between Russia and Norway. Politicians and environmentalists in Northern Norway have long sought action from Oslo against Moscow, and local residents recently proposed sanctioning Norilsk Nickel’s billionaire CEO, Vladimir Potanin.

That hasn’t come to pass, and politicians along the Norway’s Russian border have accused the capital of being too soft on its irascible neighbor.

For their part, Russian environmental officials have variously cast blame on Norway for emissions, churned out confusing and contradictory pollution figures, and been skewered in plots to take bribes for deflating government emissions reports.

Yet, if the KMMC holds to its promised emissions reductions over the next seven years, it will, by 2023, only be putting out 15,500 tons of sulfur dioxide, a remarkable improvement.

“Cutting emissions by 35,000 tons a year is a very good sign,” said Oskar Njaa, an advisor with Bellona. “It would be nice to believe the company is breaking a many-years trend and will each year establish records in cutting sulfur dioxide emissions.”

But Njaa said he’d like to see plans on how the company will get there. And despite repeated promises of vast sums for modernization, exactly what that modernization looks like continues to be vaguely mysterious.

Njaa suggested the company should start by unraveling what it plans to do with its septuagenarian nickel smelting facility in the Kola Peninsula company town of Monchegorsk.

“We’d like to see more concrete plans,” said Njaa. “If the company has plans for the emissions from the smelting works, why not reveal them? Unfortunately, right now we’re only seeing general formulations.”

The KMMC didn’t offer much else. When asked by Bellona what concrete plans were in the works, it said it would fulfill its emissions reductions promises by enacting a “complex of technical and technological measures” including repairing smelter ovens and “fulfilling a specially developed program for reducing emissions at the smelting works.”

Earlier this month, Norilsk Nickel opened a newly modernizes port in the Murmansk Region to accommodate larger shipments of nickel matte that will be sent for refining at the very facility in Monchegorsk the KMMC says it will be upgrading. The new port will be handling an increased in annual cargo from Norilsk Nickel’s hometown of Norilsk, from the current 700,000 tons to 1.5 million.

Anna Kireeva

anna@bellona.ru