Norwegian scientific group refutes claims that Norway is polluting Russia

Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer

Publish date: August 23, 2013

Written by: Charles Digges

The Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) yesterday slammed claims by a Russian-government connected NGO that Norway and other western European countries were responsible for poor air quality in Russia’s northwest Murmansk region.

The Russian group, called Green Patrol, last week made its claims public in a press conference held in the Murmansk Region, whose pollution has long been a flashpoint of tensions between Norway and Russia due emissions from the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company (KMMC), a daughter enterprise of Russia giant Norilsk Nikel, which is located a mere 7 kilometers from the Norwegian border. 

Norway, in particular, has for decades complained of high levels of toxic sulfur dioxide wafting across its border from the KMMC to the tune of 100,000 tons a year, according to NILU studies in cooperation with various Russian research agencies. NILU has also establshed high concentrations of heavy metals from the KMMC in northern Norway. 

Communities in Northern Norway, as studies by NILU and its Russian counterpart, the Russian State Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency (RosGidromet) have shown, bear the brunt of this pollution – an issue that was earlier this summer brought to the fore by a Northern Norwegian mayor from Sør-Varanger and her highly publicized but failed effort to lodge a police complaint against the KMMC.

At its press conference, Green Patrol, in conjunction with the St. Petersburg-based research institute Atmosfera , accused Norway as well as Germany, Poland and Finland, of causing 45 percent of the overall pollution in the Murmansk Region.  

Green Patrol offered no written substantiation of its claims, and the group still has not published a description of its methodology or how it reached it conclusions.

The group did, however, send an email to Nikolai Rybakov, executive director of the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in St. Petersburg, saying that it would soon be publishing the results that occasions its claims on its website.

NILU issues ‘critical scientific objections’

Green Patrol’s complaint was met with immediate public skepticism both from independent Russian environmentalists, Bellona, as well as the Norwegian scientific community.

NILU’s statement, issued on its website Thursday in Norwegian, said that Green Patrol’s claims against Norway were not focused on the actual pollution problem, were based on observation periods too short to produce any compelling results, employed selective use of data, and showed a strong bias for flawed methodology 

“[…] on the basis of our long professional activity [in the Murmansk Region, [NILU] has very critical scientific objections” to the claims made by Green Patrol.

Transborder migration of nitrogen not a problem

NILU acknowledged that nitrogen oxides migrate back and forth between Norway and Russia, but said that Green Patrol’s “claims that 45 percent of total pollution in the Murmansk region comes from abroad are not documented at all, and single out only nitrogen as imported pollution.” Nilu further added that “nitrogen deposition does not represent any environmental problem in the Murmansk region.”

Andrei Nagibin, Green Partrol’s head, in fact acknowledged in an interview that was cited on Bellona’s Russian news website last week following the press conference, that nitrogen compounds from Norway don’t come close to exceeding pollution norms in Murmansk.

“We established the fact of pollutants migrating from Norway to Russia, but they were not large – some 0.2 to 0.3 of the maximum allowable limit,” said Nagibin. 

NILU said that: “The argument that (nitrogen oxides) constitute a major environmental problem in the Murmansk region is based on selective use of data, which is scientifically unsound.”

Green Patrol claims distract from real pollution issue

NILU further emphasized that sulfur dioxide and heavy metals were the real pollution problem in the border region.

This excess sulfur dioxide and heavy metal pollution in northern Norway and the Murmansk Region – as has been documented repeatedly and over time by NILU and RosGidromet – comes from three industrial cities on the Kola Peninsula, where the Murmansk Region is located. The cities where the KMMC operates its facilities are Nikel, Zapolyarny and Monchegorsk.

NILU noted that: “To assess air quality and evaluate sources of it necessitate lengthy series of measurements, as it is not possible to draw any conclusions from single measurements performed over a short period of time,” to which Green Patrol apparently ascribes its findings. 

“Systematic and long-term measurements of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and heavy metals made by Norwegian and Russian research shows that pollution problems in border areas are primarily caused by nickel production on the Russian side,” said the NILU statement – a fact that few on either side of the border dispute.

The NILU statement also highlighted incorrect claims and shabby methodology presented by Green Patrol and Atmosfera at their jarring press conference.

According to NILU, Atmosfera’s traditional pollution modeling methods are “too coarse” to present “any accurate picture of the real pollution problem in the border area, which is the emissions of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals from Nikel and Zapolyarny.”

Representatives from Atmosfera and Green Patrol failed to return several telephone requests for comment on NILU’s statement on Friday.

Norway’s Ministry of the Environment was unable to comment on Green Patrol’s allegations and NILU’s response before press time.

NILU meanwhile said that a comprehensive joint report by the institute and its Russian counterparts about pollution in the border area between Russia and Norway would be available this autumn.

Green Patrol’s roots

In an interview with Bellona last week, Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor) immediately dismissed Green Patrol’s findings as specious, pointing specifically to it’s head, Nagibin’s political ties.

Independent biographies of Nagibin show he was a former Regional Duma Deputy of the Fair Russia party, which toes the line of the Kremlin’s United Russia party, from the Far East Sakhalin region. His group has also spoken out on behalf of supporting the building of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) terminals near Vladivostok by state gas monopoly Gazprom.

“Green Patrol is not taken seriously by any serious environmentalist in Russia,” said Mitvol, who quit Rosprirodnadzor over the service’s baked science on emissions from Norilsk Nikel. “Their findings are completely without basis and typically cannot be duplicated in any conventionally accepted way.”

Instead, Mitvol, Bellona’s own investigations into Green Patrol and a source formerly with Rosprirodnadzor, all say that the organization’s agenda is political, and that the supposed NGO is entirely financed by the Russian state.

“I would not call them an ecological organization, but a political organization that is called in to say that everything is clean in tidy in contentious spots in Russia,” said Mitvol.

“No serious environmentalists can fathom what their purpose is other than to create a fog around real ecological problems,” he said.