Russian environment agency data on Norilsk Nikel pollution proved bogus by scientists

The Russian industrial town of Nikel on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk.
Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen)

Publish date: July 2, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

Inspections by Murmansk prosecutors and the local Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage concluded that the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Combine – a daughter company of the giant Norilsk Nikel – didn’t release emissions of sulfur dioxide exceeding norms last month, despite meteorological and other scientific data proving the contrary.

One Russian official, Oleg Mitvol, a former deputy director of the Murmansk division of the Federal Service for the Supervision of Natural Rescource Usage (Rosprirodnadzor), now Chairman of the Alliance of Green – People’s Party political movement, excoriated the service’s findings.

“Rosprirodnadzor gets its figures by taking dictation from the KMMC,” he said in a telephone interview with Bellona. “This is on the border of corruption; they work together hand in hand like thieves and there is no way to independently corroborate any findings that they make public.”

The findings presented by Rosprirodnadzor and Murmansk prosecutors coincided with the publication of results from the Russian Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency (RosGidroMet), which indicated several violations of maximum pollution level norms perpetrated by the KMMC during investigations on several days in June.

“Of course pollution measurements are exceeding Russian values – I don’t know how (Rosprirodnadzor) makes these claims that they are not,” said Tore Berglen, a scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU), in a telephone interview with Bellona.

Berglen said he had “full confidence” in the pollution figures released by RosGidroMet. “I trust their results and their science,” Berglen said.

“[Rosprirodnadzor’s] findings are always inconsistent with findings from RosGidroMet and NILU, so I think there is something missing in what the agency says,” Berglen added.

The KMMC occupies three towns on the Kola Peninsula: Zapolaryny, where the KMMC mines its nickel ore, Nikel where it is smelted, and Monchegorsk, where the nickel is refined. As a combined entity they have been a heated flashpoint of dispute over cross-border pollution from Russia to Norway for the last 30 years.

Berglen was quick to say that strides have been made since then: Where the plants three decades ago sent 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide pollution into northern Norwegian communities a year, that figure has now fallen to 100,000 tons annually.

Special request to the federal prosecutor

The June pollution figures were released as the result of an inspection prompted by an official request filed in March to the Russian Prosecutor General by Mitvol’s Alliance of Greens party.

Murmansk regional prosecutors followed up by visiting the KMMC from June 10 to 13, local Rosprirodnadzor head Ruslan Tishchenko told Bellona. He said that an independent laboratory he did not identify carried out measurements on the edge of the buffer protection zone of the industrial complex in Nikel, and that, when the tests were taken, no excesses of allowable pollution limits were detected. 

RosGidroMet, however, reported on its website (in Russian), that its own measurements, taken on the same days as the Rosprirodnadzor’s independent laboratory, showed clear excesses in sulfur dioxide emissions. RosGidroMet’s measuring stations are situated outside the buffer zone surrounding the KMMC, and use Norwegian methods of taking measurements, NILU’s Berglen said.

On June 10, for instance, the levels of sulfur dioxide pollution rose to an average of nearly 4.6 parts per cubic meter, 3.6 more the maximum allowable limit for three hours, according to RosGidroMet measurements, and again at an average of 3.8 parts per cubic meter, 2.8 parts per cubic meter more than the allowable limit for nine hours on the same day. On June 11, the average pollution levels hovered at 2.1 parts per cubic meter for nine hours before dropping on June 12 to 0.9 parts per cubic meter – that is, inside maximum allowable limits – for 13 hours. Sulfur dioxide levels spiked again on June 13, showing an average of 2.6 parts per cubic meter for 23 hours.

Rosprirodnazor’s data

Unfavorable weather conditions make a big contribution to the concentrations of polluting gases in their air.

According to Mikhail Shkondin, head of the KMMC’s division of ecological safety, such weather conditions were recorded over 15 days in June.

“In such circumstances, the maximum allowable pollution limit in this or that town was observed over a period of 10 hours,” he said in an interview with Murmansk television, speaking of the pollution levels made public by Rosprirodnadzor. “You understand how many hours there are in 15 days, and of them, only 10 hours saw the maximum allowable limit exceeded.”

“Of course, I don’t believe the figures presented by Rosprirodnadzor relative to the KMMC,” said Mitvol. “The company constantly exceeds maximum pollution levels.”

Indeed, Rosprirodnadzor’s figures completely fail to correspond to both the data collected by, and the number of hours pollution spikes were observed by, the Murmansk division of RosGidroMet, which nearly daily charts pollution levels above the maximum limit – not just within the safety buffer zones of Zapolyarny and and Nikel, but throughout the towns themselves.

NILU’s Berglen noted that his organization has also observed steadily increasing levels of heavy metals such as copper and nickel in lakes, plant life and moss in the northerly lying regions of Norway that border with Russia since 2004.

“Something happened at the plants that year but we don’t know what,” he said. He added that the KMMC had shown NILU its production data, which reflected no increase in emissions of heavy metals.

“Their data showed that their releases of heavy metals had remained constant, but measurements on the Norwegian side showed they were going up,” he said. “I think something is missing from the picture.”

Prosecutors’ inspection

The Murmansk Prosecutors’ office, dogged last week by media reports on the KMMC’s pollution and the legal threats of a vociferous small town Norwegian mayor whose region is getting the worst of it, were finally compelled on Monday to announce they were already investigating contaminating emissions as part of “planned” inspections.

Maria Krayevskaya of the Environmental Prosecutors’ office told Bellona they felt obliged to make known some of the findings of their ongoing investigation when Cecilie Hansen, mayor of the 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. Hansen was scuttled by her own municipal council, who voted against attempting prosecution in favor of creating a working group to address the pollution issue.

bodytextimage_hansen.jpg Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen

Krayevskaya said that on June 25, prosecutors working in conjunction with the Center of Laboratory Studies collected air samples on the industrial complexes of Nikel and Zapolyarny – and that at the moment of collection, the samples did not exhibit pollution above norms.

But data collected by RosGidroMet, which took air measurements on June 25 and 26, tells a slightly different story. According to its website, weather conditions facilitating a concentration of pollution in the lower atmosphere were ideal. RosGidroMet issued an internet warning to industries in the area to reduce their emissions by lowering production.

All the same, RosGidroMet measured an average of 1.2 parts per cubic meter of pollution over a 19-hour period in Zapolyarny on June 25, representing a 0.2 excess of pollution norms. 

Evelina Makarova, senior deputy to Murmansk prosecutor Maksim Ershov, told Bellona that Ershov met with KMMC management during the June 25 inspection.

“Considering the social significance of the issue at hand, the regional prosecutor will be taking the conduction of inspections under his personal control,” Makarova said.  This means, in theory, that Ershov will monthly follow up on KMMC and other Murmansk industrial sites’ efforts to reduce pollution and adhere to Russian ecological law.

Bellona’s position

June’s incidents surrounding the KMMC and its emissions were by far from the first that sounded alarm bells relative to Russian ecological legislation.

In July and August of 2007, bad weather conditions and towering overruns of the maximum allowable pollution limits led to a special meeting in the northern Norwegian town of Kirkenes, attended by KMMC representatives, Norway’s environmental minister, representatives of the Murmansk Regional administration, as well as experts from Norway and Russia. In September 2007, the prosecutor of the Pechenga district of the Murmansk Region brought suit against the KMMC.

Andrei Zolotkov, director of Bellona-Murmansk, said it is important to underscore that Bellona only recommends reducing harmful emissions from, and environmental damage inflicted by, the KMMC – not closing the factories.

“We speak of the necessity of reducing harmful emissions,” said Zolotkov.

bodytextimage_AZ-4.jpg Photo: Bellona

“The fact that this problem exists is well known even to the KMMC. If there were not serious excesses of polluting substances in industrial areas, there would not the corresponding emissions, and there would not be constant announcements in the mass media about [the KMMC’s] plans for natural preservation,” Zolotkov said, adding, “I am not at all surprised by this situation, when all government agencies concerned with the environment say in chorus ‘there are no violations, everything is within allowable limits, we went and checked and discovered nothing wrong.’”

Who among local bureaucrats, said Zolotkov, would utter a word against the Murmansk Region’s “budget cash cow.”

“This is small theatrical production, with the participation of the prosecutor, Rosprirodnadzor, and an independent laboratory allows the KMMC to proudly declare its absence of pollution or violations of environmental law while referring to these inspections,” he said.  “But the story will not end here – bad weather will happen in the future, the plants will function, and the emissions will not go anywhere, and the technology is still old.”

Zolotkov noted that discussions of reducing pollution from the KMMC via a process known as “briquetting” – in which special briquettes absorb sulfur dioxide emissions altogether – have been ongoing for three years.

“It remains only to hope that the management of the company during bad weather will undertake necessary decisions to avoid unfavorable consequences for the populations of Zapolyarny and Nikel in time,” said Zolotkov. 

Anna Kireeva contributed to this report.