Norilsk Nickel, polluting giant, declares new age of eco-transparency

A view of the industrial city of Nikel, one of the three that host the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Plant. The other two are Monchegorks and Zapolyarny.
A view of the industrial city of Nikel, one of the three that host the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Plant. The other two are Monchegorks and Zapolyarny.

Publish date: October 16, 2017

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Norilsk Nickel, the Russian Arctic’s industrial giant, tried to break from its environmentally hostile history by inviting Bellona to an ecological conference where it held discussions of its emissions cutting schemes and its apparent new openness.

Norilsk Nickel, the Russian Arctic’s industrial giant, tried to break from its environmentally hostile history by inviting Bellona to an ecological conference where it held discussions of its emissions cutting schemes and its apparent new openness.

Its sixth annual conference, called “Environmental Defense and Industrial Activity in the North,” kicked off on Friday in Krasnoyarsk, a central Siberian city that, in the words of its governor, Alexander Uss, has ecological problems of it’s own.

“There’s no sense in denying existing environmental problems – ecological rehabilitation must be transparent,”Uss told the conference. “Today we are seeing progress, that there’s a consciousness that it can’t continue as it has. Profitable industry must be fortified by ecological efforts.”

As such, no one at the conference denied the company’s abysmal environmental record, but they didn’t bring up what they considered already to be well known, concentrating instead on what they wish to do to add a more positive few chapters to that history from now on. One of these chapters, all agreed, was the closure last year of a Soviet era nickel factory on the ground of Norilsk Nickel.

According to Victor Ivanov, Norilsk Nickel’s deputy director for reconstruction and industrial ecology, closing the factory, which had operated since 1942, dropped sulfur dioxide emissions from the company by 300,000 tons a year. It eliminated a further 600 sources of atmospheric pollution, of which 458 had been churning away without any environmental abatement.

Norilsk-Russia Norilsk, Russia. Credit:

He didn’t say how many other pollution sources remain to be eliminated, but he did say that the closure of the factory has led to an uptick in operations at the company’s Nadezhnisk smelting facilities.

Nevertheless, Anton Telnov, who does research with St Petersburg’s Gipronickel Institute, told the conference that sulfur dioxide emission in the town still reach 12 times the legally permitted norms. Telnov said further modernizations are needed.

Sulfur Project

The company’s sulfur project therefore received the most concentrated attention at the ecological conference – without which the company has little hope of tamping down its emissions to legal measures. In 2016, Norilsk Nickel signed on with SNC Lavalin, a Canadian company, to work up a project for eliminating its sulfuric gases. The company would have used foreign technology and equipment, and its preliminary cost was set at $2 billion.

Recently, however, it was revealed that the project would cost twice that, so the company is looking at different ways to bring down its sulfur emissions by producing sulfuric acid and then neutralizing it with lime.

This alternative is cheaper than the one developed with SNC Lavalin, and can be accomplished with Russian equipment. But the downside is that it would require transporting and warehousing large quantities of limestone.

Andrei Severilov, who works with Norilsk Nickel’s investment projects, said both possibilities have already undergone a government environmental study, and the company will soon chose one.

In 2016, the Norilsk Nickel’s sulfur dioxide emissions totaled 1.1 million tons. The sulfur project is supposed to drop those emissions by 75 percent before 2023.

ingressimage_nikel.png A view from inside the town of Nikel. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer) Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Nilsen/The Barents Observer

The Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company

Relatively little time went to discussing the company’s emissions on the Kola Peninsula, where sulfur dioxide emissions are about 10 times lower than they are in Norilsk.

According to the conference, the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, which is a daughter company of Norilsk Nickel, has something to be proud of this year: It cut its sulfur dioxide emission in 2016 by more than 20 percent.

Alexander Tyukin, who is responsible for technical development and environmental safety at the Kola facility, the company stopped firing briquettes and now produced them by mechanical means, which dropped sulfur dioxide emissions coming from its industrial town of Zapolyarny by eight times.

He told Bellona that future emissions cuts in the industrial town of Nikel would come from smelting only products that contain little sulfur.

“Sulfur from the smelting facility will be lowered by the fact that the enrichment factory in Zapolyarny will separate out specific products rich in sulfur,” he said. “Consequently, sulfur emissions will be reduced in the smelting process.”

At present, the company won’t say by what year to expect these changes, or where they will smelt ores containing high concentrations of sulfur.

A declaration of transparency

Yelena Bezdenezhnykh, Norilsk Nickel’s vice president and state secretary, the company’s ecological activities are now part of the cost of doing business. The company’s envisions investing $4 billion in environmental upgrades by 2023. Bezdenezhnykh said a variety of projects in that vein would lead to emissions reductions of 75 percent under 2015. The company will also reduce dumping in water bodies by 80 percent, she said.

And she promised the company from now on would adhere to a policy of transparency and would work with environmental organizations.

“Norilsk Nickel isn’t hiding its head in the sand,” she said. “For the first time we have invited domestic ecologists to our conference. From the point of view of discussing ecological problems, the company is open like never before.”

Bellona has for decades has worked with various Russian and foreign private and government structures to search out environmental solutions. And for years, Bellona has dealt with issues of sulfur dioxide pollution in the near border territories of Russia and Norway – and leveled critiques at the company for its insufficient efforts.

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

During that time, Bellona has heard different promises and all manner of plans – all while emissions have not only not decreased, but gone up. The only year that saw any appreciable drop in sulfur dioxide emission from the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company came last year.

But the monolithic industrial giant has yet to supply any forecast about its emissions for next year or the year after that. It would be logical for a company declaring its openness to supply something of a road map on where it expects its emissions to go between now and 2023.

With such a roadmap, it would be visible for the ecologists the company is apparently courting whether or not this or that plan to bring down emissions was actually working, and what problems need to be worked out along the way to realize these emissions cuts.

That the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company cut it emissions by 35,000 tons in 2016 is a terrific start. But transparency is when environmentalists and those who live in these industrial cities have an understanding of how these reductions are achieved according to some plan, not just by happenstance.

What cuts do they plan to make in 2017? Will the emissions equal or be less than we saw in 2016? If the cuts will continue, what can we expect?

In the reality of contemporary Russia, no one is going to believe a giant company if they don’t put up a concrete plan and figures and way to check whether it is actually making concrete progress toward its goals – especially a company like Norilsk Nickel, whose miserable environmental record speaks for itself.

Nevertheless, Alexander Niktin, who runs Bellona’s St Petersburg offices, was satisfied with the conference.

“This was the first time Bellona was allowed to attend one of Norilsk Nickel’s corporate conferences – and we value this step on the company’s behalf,” he said. “Any cooperation with any structure begins with people sitting down at the same table. Now we are hearing from the company that business and realizing environmental projects are inseparable. We have seen that the company wants to have a positive image, including an international one. We see that Norilsk Nickel is ready to openly discuss even technical questions and questions of further cooperation with non-profits and outside experts – this is the most important conclusion about our participation. We’ll see how it turns out.”