Dangerous sulfur dioxide levels at Kola nickel plant are dropping, cheering environmentalists

nikel The industrial town of Nikel, near Murmansk, one of the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company's industrial cities. Credit: Anna Kireeva/Bellona

Dangerous emissions from the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company dropped by nearly 9 percent during 2017, says data from the company, marking, according to its figures, a significant drop in pollution over the previous year.

The data were published in the annual report of Norilsk Nickel, the Kola enterprise’s Siberia-based parent company and one of the world’s largest nickel producers, which has long been a focus of environmental ire.  Last year’s drop in sulfur dioxide will come as welcome news to the Murmansk Region and neighboring Scandinavia, which have long suffered pollution from the nickel refining works –– as well as decades of broken promises to bring it to heel.

Yet for the past year, Norilsk Nickel has embarked on a highly vocal multi-billion dollar effort to rewrite its history as a major Russian polluter, vowing to revamp its production facilities to stem their harmful emissions. The stakes for the company are high – Norilsk Nickel produces metals vital to the production of batteries in electric cars, but many major auto makers, like Tesla and Volvo, refuse to buy products produced by unrepentant polluters.

To reverse this course, Norilsk Nickel has pledged to stem emissions at its Siberian facilities by 75 percent over 2015 levels by 2023, with a corresponding drop from the chimneys of its Kola facilities by 50 percent by the same year.

The effort – which comes at a price tag of $17 billion – seems to be working. According to the Norilsk Nickel’s figures, the Kola facilities cut their sulfur dioxide emissions by some 11,000 tons in 2017, down to a total of 109,100 tons.

nikel2 Another view of Nikel, one of the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company's industrial towns. Credit: Anna Kireeva/Bellona


Still, this dip is not as significant as the drop the Kola facilities posted at the end of 2016, during which sulfur dioxide emissions came down by 35,000 tons – a more impressive drop of 20 percent.

But Bellona is encouraged by the trend.

“We are very pleased that the emission reductions have continued,” said Oskar Njaa, an advisor with Bellona’s Russia group who has researched the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company’s pollution. “Although these figures are more modest than those from a year ago, the company is nonetheless moving toward the process of cutting its sulfur dioxide emissions – we are aware this is not an easy task.”

The Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, which is an enormous local employer,  is spread out over three industrial towns near Murmansk in Russia’s far northwestern Kola Peninsula – Monchegorsk, Zapolyarny and Nikel. According to the Norilsk Nickel report, sulfur dioxide emissions dropped last year thanks to pollution measures in the latter two towns.

In Zapolyarny, which is responsible for the company’s enrichment procedures, the company will begin to produce ores that release less intensive amounts of sulfur dioxide pollution when they are eventually smelted in Nikel. Ores that produce higher levels of sulfur dioxide, says the company, will simply be smelted elsewhere.

As for Nikel, technicians there have begun to use sulfuric acid in the process of smelting nickel ore, which reduces the amount of sulfur released into the atmosphere. This process, according to the Kola facility’s press service, is expected to bring sulfur dioxide emissions from the Nikel-based smelting works down to 40,000 a year by 2019.

Norilsk Nickel is also undertaking an extensive company-wide modernization among its numerous workshops, many of which date back to the second world war. Much of this work will consist of new sealing systems for ore smelting furnaces and replacement of aged gas flues.

Still, for all of these encouraging development, the company hasn’t yet resolved how to cope with pollution spikes that are often driven by inclement weather conditions. This issue was brought into stark relief as recently as this past Spring, when bitterly low temperatures and nearly still wind conditions parked a stew of sulfur dioxide smog over Monchegorsk for several days in March.

The pollution incident infuriated the towns 46,000 resident, most of whom work for the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, and coated them in a fog so thick that schools were shut down until conditions improved.

The company eventually shut down its production lines for a number of days to combat the pollution, and federal environmental officials said they would investigate the mishap and levied a fine.

Anna Kireeva

anna@bellona.ru

Charles Digges