Oil spill in Russian Artic had many causes, environmentalists say

20,000 tons of oil has spilled in a river near Norilsk Russia.
20,000 tons of oil has spilled in a river near Norilsk Russia.
Courtest of via the Barents Observer.

Publish date: June 22, 2020

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Environmentalists say that accidents like an oil spill above Russia’s Arctic Circle could be avoided by eliminating systemic problems that lead to such accidents and by providing ways for the public to engage with corporations whose business might impact nature negatively.

Environmentalists say that accidents like an oil spill above Russia’s Arctic Circle could be avoided by eliminating systemic problems that lead to such accidents and by providing ways for the public to engage with corporations whose business might impact nature negatively.

In late May a fuel tank owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel ruptured, dumping more than 20,000 tons of diesel oil into a river called the Ambarnaya in what many said was the Arctic’s worst spill to date. The leak became known to authorities only after pictures of the slick found their way to social media. President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency to tackle the disaster, but signs of the spill began to turn up in a glacial lake, called Lake Pyasino, which feeds into the Kara Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean.

Since then, responders have been working to localized the spill and collect the leaking diesel fuel, and Norilsk Nickel’s website has been publishing daily updates on progress.

Last week, in correspondence with Norilsk Nickel, Bellona suggested that a number of Norwegian firms maintaining technology and expertise in handling oil spills could help stem the accident. And according to statements from Sergei Dyachenko, a first vice president at the company, Norwegian firms have risen to the occasion. Several kilometers of absorbent oil booms arrived from Norway to help Russian workers in their efforts to combat the slick.

Screen Shot 2020-06-05 at 5.41.57 AM Location of the Ambarnaya River and the Norislk Nickel oil spill. (click to enlarge). Credit: Google Earth

Alexei Knizhnikov, who oversees the business and environmental responsibility program for Russia’s chapter of the WWF, said the coordinated efforts are working. Some 5,000 meters of oil booms laid by Russia’s maritime rescue service stopped the worst of the oil from reaching Lake Pyasino. According to figures from Russia’s emergency situations ministry, oil concentrations inside the booms are six times higher than permissible limits – while in the lake, they are only 1.3 times that limit.

During a special broadcast on Bellona’s Instagram channel, Knizhnikov said that if the spill had occurred just weeks before, when the Ambarnaya River and Lake Pyasino were still icebound, sopping up the spill wouldn’t have been possible. Instead, he said, the oil would have remained under the ice and eventually reached the Kara Sea.

“Now rescuers are curtailing work on the Ambarnaya River,” Knizhnikov said during the broadcast. “Localized pollution remains on the right bank and in small lakes and canals. I think that in the near future the active stage of the collection will end.”

But he cautioned that the WWF had lost trust in Norilsk Nickel over its slow response to the spill, calling early foot-dragging “incomprehensible.” Instead, he suggested that Russia’s maritime rescue service and satellite imagery offer more reliable updates on the progress of the cleanup.

norilsk spill ambarnaya Booms stopping oil migration on the Ambarnaya River. Credit: ilya_torgonskyi

As of last week, the emergency services ministry said a total of 31,318 cubic meters of diesel and water mixture had been collected from the stricken area, 25,073 cubic metes of which is from the Ambarnaya River. The ministry further said that 92,466 tons of contaminated soil had been collected and transported to a dump.  Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnoyark region, where the spill took place, predicted the federal response would wind down this week, leaving the rest to local officials.

Reasons for the accident
Vladimir Potanin, Norilsk Nickel’s CEO, has blamed thawing permafrost for causing the accident.

“An analysis of the reasons remains to be done, but presumably a sudden subsidence of piles [supporting the fuel tank] occurred due to changes in permafrost, he told the Russian press.  “It’s hard to predict and predict such things.”

Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources likewise sees melting permafrost as a main culprit.

“We are still investigating, but there is a high probability that this is due to the thawing of the soil due to the climatic changes that are occurring in the Arctic zone,” said Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology Dmitry Kobylkin, the minister for natural resources and ecology.

Yet other environmentalists, while acknowledging the role of thawing soil, don’t want officials to divert attention from what is essentially a problem of worn-out and obsolete equipment.

According to Zhanna Petukhova, professor and director of the Arctic Permafrost Research Center in Norilsk, the stricken oil tanks were built on pile structures that rest not on permafrost, but on a rocky foundation. The wear and tear on these particular tanks, according to Novaya Gazeta, was well known. As far back as 2016, said the paper, Norilsk Nickel was considering replacing them.

“This accident could have been prevented,” Knizhnikov said during the Bellona Instagram broadcast. “The cause of the accident was a completely outdated tank, which is not even visually monitored by environmental safety systems. The only explanation I can give why the company did not replace this tank was that it was designed to store alternative fuel. Therefore, the attitude towards it was secondary. Even with a minimal environmental risk assessment, this tank should have been replaced, and the replacement cost would have been ridiculous compared to what the company would be forced to pay now.”

Simon Kalmykov of Bellona’s Murmansk office agreed that the spill revealed a complex of problems that should be addressed to avoid repeat incidents in the future.

“The root cause is not so important,” he said during the Instagram broadcast. “More important is the reaction rate and how [Norilsk Nickel] relates to such incidents. Here a whole complex of systemic problems was revealed.”

The spill’s consequences
According to preliminary data, the spill will cost $145 million to clean up. Environmentalists hope that the cost won’t detract from the billions Norilsk Nickel is currently spending on modernizing its production facilities.

“The question is how much the company will be willing to spend on further modernization of production, given that not only this system is at risk, but also other industries,” Kalmykov says.

Environmentalists say the incident in Norilsk proves once again that the public should have a role when Norilsk Nickel discusses its plans for environmental safety and response to accidents. But Knizhnikov noted that most companies resist this. Had there been some form of public participation when Norilsk Nickel drew up its oil spill response plans, he said, the fact that the company lacked critical cleanup equipment would have been obvious.

In the interest of better environmental safety, Bellona has encouraged Norilsk Nickel to form a public council with the participation of environmental organizations.