Who’s polluting whom? The figures don’t add up

Publish date: December 5, 2012

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Charles Digges

MURMANSK – Industrial pollution of the Kola Peninsula’s atmosphere and environment remains lost in translation between Russia ad Norway, as the Russian continues to report on successful emissions reductions while its neighbor asserts efforts at cuts are not satisfactory.

Pavel Sazhinov, deputy speaker of the Murmansk Region Duman, has said the level of polluting substances emanating from near-border industry has declined more than three times over the last 25 years.

Svetlana Bulatova, a consultant for industrial development, ecology and natural resource usage backed this assertion up, citing the sharp fall off in complaints from local citizens, falling from 200 complaints in 2010 to only 21 in 2012. 

Andrei Nedre, general director of the Atmosfera research institute told last week’s “Trans-border and Regional Management of Air Quality: Experience and Plans for the Murmansk Region conference that: “Unfortunately, air preservation activities in Russia are undertaken for not environmental but rather sanitary reasons.”

“We continue only to protect people, not all the flora and fauna,” he said. 

Norway has asserted that whatever cuts Russia claims, they are not only not protecting flora and fauna, but continue to be a health risk as well.

Differences of opinion

The conference’s main focus was the Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company (Kola MMC), long a source of tensions over its trans-border pollution. Nedre claimed much progress in reducing overall emissions in the area but conceded that “negative emissions” must be dropped “to levels acceptable to our neighbors.”

According to Mikhail Shkondin, head of the Kola MMC’s ecological monitoring division, Atmosfera and the massive Kola metal smelting complex have jointly measured emissions of sulfur dioxide – the most harmful element of the plant’s pollution – along the Norwegian border, and concluded that “constant monitoring has not revealed an increase on either the Russian or Norwegian side of emissions over the threshold of allowable concentration.”

Both the Russian Federal Service on Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring (Rosgidroment) and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) dumped cold water on this assertion.

According to Norwegian studies (viewable at right), sulfur dioxide emissions from the Kola MCC’s nickel smelting plant in the village of Nickel and its briquetting factory in the city of Zapolyarny equal some 100,000 tons a year, or some five times the combined annual emissions of Norway. The Kola MCC emissions have led to high concentrations of sulfer dioxide along the Russian-Norwegian border.

Norwegian authorities and near border residents spoke out on the dire environmental circumstances in Nickel and Zapolyarny. Sør-Varanger Mayor, Cecilie Hansen has followed the pollution for 20 years.

Indeed, even the Kola MMC’s Shkondin said production modernization efforts in Zapolyarny meant to significantly reduce sulfur dioxide emissions have not gone as smoothly as planned. Much of this modernization will come in the form of briquettes that will absorb excess sulfur dioxide, but the project is moving in fits and starts.

‘We cannot launch the procedure for dehumidifying the concentrate until briquetting has begun,” said Shkondin. He said the Kola MC has spend some $80 million to build this branch, but that installation and start up problems, and launch the briquetting workshop have been delayed for a year. 

“At the moment, no one can say when we will succeed with this,” Shkondin told Bellona in an interview. “It could happen tomorrow or in a year, but all the company’s efforts are focused on resolving this issue.”

Nevertheless, as Bellona has underscored numerous times, modernization at the Zapolyarny briquetting works will not resolve the problem of reducing the negative consequences of emissions by the combine’s enterprises – the smelting plant in Nickel must also be modernized.

According to an interview with Sør-Varanger’s Hansen on Norwegian national broadcaster NRK, dragging out decisions plays into the hands of Russian authorities, but that “we in Sør-Varanger will not give up.”

International cooperation  

It is no secret that Norway and Finland’s perturbation as Russia’s closest neighbors is forcing the Russian side to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions or at least try to justify them.

“Norway’s criticism has spurred 50 percent of the  [Kola MCC’s] action to address this issue,” said Shkondin. 

However, the recent past has seen less real action and efforts from Russia toward this goal as it has heard grievances from Russia toward its neighbors.

Nedre, for instance, said Russia is the victim of more negative consequences from its neighbors than it inflicts. Olga Borisenko, chairwoman of the Murmansk Region’s committee for industrial development, ecology and natural resource usage, agreed. According to her, studies of the impact of Russian industry on neighboring countries is as necessary as studying the impact of industry in neighboring countries on the Murmansk Region.

Bellona’s commentary

In the assessment of Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona-Murmansk, the history of dialogue between Norway and Russia on this subject has been ongoing for three decades. Norway’s concerns are understandable: When you see the smoking chimneys at Nickel and know that this not just harmless smoke, but emissions of sulfur oxide and other pollution substances, then the attention of authorities to Norway’s near-border territory and trans-border pollution is understandable.  

They have all seen the technogenic wastelands surrounding Zapolyarny and Nickel, and have no desire to see the same on their own territory. And of course, Russia’s neighbors are afraid that after the launch of the briquetting workshop in Zapolyarny, all the emissions will  migrate to Nikel. The Kola MCC is painstaking dodging answering this question.

No one denies certain emissions reductions in the Pechenga region, but in the past years this process stalled at about 100,000 tons.

In 2011 there was an attempt to creation a working group to monitor environmental conditions and emissions levels in the near-border area, which wrote (full text in Russian viewable at right): “The sides are agreed that the level of emissions from the production of nickel in the Pechenga district of the Murmansk Region is cause for concern and must be reduced to a level that will not harm the health or environment within the near border area. The Russian side will effect the adoption of the necessary measures to reduce emissions.” 

This is a pretty clear text that requires no commentary. But a year and a half has passed and practically no efforts at forming this working group have been made.

Now the Russian side is trying to add a new perspective to this history – namely, why don’t we look at how foreign pollution is affecting us?  One gets the impressing that concrete emissions reductions are not the real aim of the numerous meetings and discussions, and that for Russia, the very process of discussing this theme in any variant possible is more important. Isn’t this was Norilsk Nikel and [its daughter company] the Kola MCC are achieving anyway?

Modernizing the technological process in Nickel and Zapolyarny is a very expensive pastime even for a company was rich as Norilsk Nickel. And, by the same token, if there are no hopeful prospects at the mining base for production of its product, then none of the owners will go for such expenditures. It is cheaper to use what is already there –and hold discussions and seminars and so on. Russia has become a full member of the World Trade Organization, and this means that production for the market must be confirmed ecologically safe. Can the Kola MCC actually conform to this?

It is perfectly understandable when the chairman of the public chamber of  the Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Resource Use (Rosprirodnadzor), during a visit to the Kola MCC, declares it a “leader in environmental production,” but will, for instance, EU environmental commissioner confirm this assessment when he sees the “beauty” surrounding Nikel and Zapolyarny?

And how will near-border cooperation look if Norway puts up an information table about the concentration of sulfur dioxide in the border area at its customs checkpoint in Storskog?