Russian prosecutors respond to small town mayor – further answers may be unwelcome

Central Nikel on the Kola Peninsula.
Thomas Nilsen for Bellona

Publish date: June 28, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Prosecutors in Russia’s Far North Murmansk Region, dogged by media reports of pollution and the legal threats of a vociferous small town Norwegian mayor whose region is getting the worst of it, were finally compelled this week to announce they were already investigating contaminating emissions as part of “planned” inspections.

The Murmansk Region prosecutors’ office earlier this week released the information that it was in the middle of conducting a planned inspection of the Kola Mining and Metallurgical Combine (KMMC) – a daughter company of Norilsk Nikel – to make sure it was in compliance with Russian pollution regulations.

The prosecutors’ announcements concerning their inspections to local papers followed directly on reports by Bellona, and other Norwegian and Russian media, that Cecilie Hansen, mayor of the northerly Norwegian municipality of Sør-Varanger intended to bring a police investigation into the emissions of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals from the KMMC’s smelting facilities, which have been billowing into northern Norway for decades.

A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office Thursday told Bellona that they “were not able to not react to the reports in the media.”

The ongoing routine inspections of the KMMC and other Kola Peninsula industries’ compliance with environmental norms in the Murmansk region does not, however, mean that pollution reduction measures satisfying Norwegian complaints will be undertaken.

The investigations by Murmansk officials have revealed mixed results, depending on who is asked, with some prosecutors’ spokespeople saying no pollution violations have been revealed at the KMMC, while others say violations have occurred under certain weather conditions.

Adding further to the confusion are preliminary statements from the local office of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, which likewise says the KMMC’s emissions are within acceptable norms.

Sør-Varanger is a mere stone’s throw from the industrial wasteland that constitutes the KMMC’s operations in three Kola Peninsula industry towns:  Zapolaryny, where the KMMC mines its nickel ore, Nikel where it is smelted and Monchegorsk, where the nickel is refined.

According to studies by the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, the Sør-Varanger area is the country’s hardest hit by the KMMC’s pollution. Some 100,000 tons of sulfur dioxide and heavy metal emissions cross the Norwegian border yearly from the smelting plants.

Mixed messages from prosecutors

A prosecutors’ spokesman on Thursday told Bellona in a telephone interview that at this stage of the continuing investigation, pollution from the KMMC has not been proved to be in excess of maximum allowable limits.

In a separate interview to the Murman news agency (in Russian) on Thursday, Senior Assistant Prosecutor Evelina Makarova was somewhat more candid.

“There is definitely evidence that on certain days, in certain meteorological conditions, that such [pollution] excesses have occurred,” Makarova said.  “As the inspections have shown, the management of the enterprise is undertaking measures to eliminate these violations and lower dangerous concentrations of emissions.”

KMMC management seemed to confirm that, also telling Murman that emissions are a subject of constant monitoring, but that “isolated incidents of violations are from time to time impossible to avoid for technical reasons.”

Mayor’s bid to prosecute quashed

Mayor Hansen’s unilateral initiative to try to undertake prosecuting the KMMC was quashed in a close vote by her own municipal council, which favors the creation of a working group to determine rules of engagement with the Russian side over the continued lethal pollution.

bodytextimage_hansen.jpg Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen

The majority of Hansen’s council wished to avoid “insulting” the Russian – mostly, she said, out of economic considerations.

The first meeting of the Sør-Varanger municipal council work group will take place on Wednesday, July 3, and will be headed by Hansen.

But many in northern Norway are wearied by prolonging what is already a 25-year-old process of committee meetings, attempts at cross-border political dialogue, and what many consider to be a consistently meek reaction from Norway’s central government to the toxic issue.

Sør-Vananger mayor cautiously applauds news reports

Hansen, when notified by Bellona of the Russian newspaper reports, expressed satisfaction.

“I think it’s great that the prosecutors in Murmansk are conducting a planned inspection of the Norilsk Nikel facilities and felt compelled to announce they were in the middle of it because of the concerns of my town,” she told Bellona by telephone Friday.

“I hope this produces some results and that they see they must lower pollution and have a dialogue with the Norwegian side,” she said. She further hailed the Murmansk Prosecutors’ announcements to the media as something that could elevate the discussion to a national level.

But Hansen’s enthusiasm about the actions of the Russia-side prosecutors is also tempered with caution born of experience. After all, planned checks by prosecutors in the past have failed to lead to drastic cuts in pollution.

“My remaining question is will this change anything?” she said. Hansen nonetheless maintains hope for improvement because of her past cordial relations with Murmansk Region Governor Marina Kovtun, who before becoming governor, was instrumental in talks with Hansen concerning pollution issues in near-border Norwegian fisheries.

Hansen’s cry prompts rare candor – but likly little action

Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona Murmansk, when commenting on the proliferation of articles about the ongoing planned inspection of the KMMC, said that he could not recall any times in the past that similar technical details about technological processes at the plants had been discussed so widely in the press.

“In my opinion, this information came as the result of Sør-Varanger’s mayor,” Zolotkov said. “They read the papers and know what’s going on.”

But Zolotkov was not hopeful about the outcome the publicity would bring.

“For now [prosecutors] are demonstrating their concern about this problem so that after a little while they can inform everyone that they uncovered flaws and violations, and maybe they will even fine someone,” he said, adding, “but then they will reach a conclusion that is something like the emissions are within limits, that the situation is within the boundaries of Russian legislation and that further monitoring is required.”