Several large industries have been operating in the Russian Arctic for decades — many of them dating back to Soviet times — and are having an unprecedentedly destructive impact on the region’s environment. The environmental problems associated with their work in many cases have not been resolved, despite various initiatives to reduce emissions and eliminate accumulated damage.
Against this background, over the past few years, the Arctic zone of Russia (AZRF) has been experiencing a new industrial boom. Industrial projects are being implemented, primarily in the field of natural resource extracion, some of which, due to their scale and enormous capacity, are proudly called megaprojects in Russian government documents.
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is under development and is the main transport artery via which these megaproject enterprises will operate and export their products. Freight traffic along the NSR is planned to increase from the current 34 million tons per year to 150 and even 216.45 million tons per year in 2030.
On the whole, this concerns the production of oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and non-ferrous metals. By 2035, coal production and transportation volumes should also increase sharply. International sanctions have not yet significantly affected the scale of this activity.
This, in turn, raises concerns that — given current policies of the Russian state in the Arctic that have failed to address environmental problems for decades — the implementation of new large-scale projects for its industrial development could lead to the emergence of new environmental hot spots in one of the world’s most vulnerable regions.
In this article we address the current state of the four most problematic industrial clusters in the Russian Arctic from an environmental point of view: the Norilsk Nickel sites in Norilsk and the Murmansk region, as well as mining operations in Vorkuta and the Usinsk region of the Komi Republic, which in 1994 experienced the world’s worst land-based oil spill.
These industries present a bleak example of the consequences we can expect from the commissioning of new mining and processing facilities if Russian environmental policy does not undergo fundamental changes.
Norilsk is a city beyond the Arctic Circle in the Krasnoyarsk region. It finds its origins in the discovery of the Norilsk copper-nickel ore deposit in 1910-20. In 1935, the construction of the city-forming enterprise, the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Combine and the village attached to it, began with the labor of Gulag prisoners. In 1953, Norilsk was elevated to the status of a cit. A powerful impetus for its development was the discovery in 1960 of two more large deposits of copper-nickel ores — the Talnakh and Oktyabrsky deposits.
Since 1989, the Norilsk Mining and Metallurgical Combine, as a Polar Branch, became part of Norilsk Nickel joint stock company. Now the plant produces about 85% of Russian nickel and cobalt, about 70% of copper and more than 95% of platinum group metals, as well as silver, selenium, tellurium, and sulfur. At the same time, throughout its history it has been a powerful source of negative impacts for the environment.
In the spring, Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s environmental oversight agency, published statistics on air pollution in Russia for 2022. Norilsk took first place among the country’s cities with its emissions of 1,787,000 tons of pollutants into the air, or 10.5% of atmospheric emissions from all stationary sources in the Russian Federation.
According to a Norilsk Nickel report, 1,779,000 tons of emissions were produced by numerous industrial sites at the company’s Polar Division, the vast majority of them being sulfur dioxide, or SO2. According to Rosprirodnadzor, SO2 emissions in Norilsk in 2022 were 1,765,000 tons. Greenpeace emphasizes that the Polar Branch is the world’s largest man-made source of sulfur dioxide pollution.
SO2 is a substance of hazard class 3, according to Russia’s classification system. It persists in the atmosphere from several hours to several days. Its presence in the atmosphere can lead to the formation of other sulfur compounds, which are also harmful to human health, as well as plants and animals.
Among other things, high concentrations of SO2 causes acid rain — as well as fog, snow, hail and other types of precipitation — which burns vegetation and acidifies the soil, which in turn degrades vegetation.
Of the remaining emissions from the Polar Division, heavy metals have the most negative impact on the environment. Specifically, these are nickel and copper, as well as cobalt, arsenic, etc.
Wastewater from non-ferrous metallurgy also leads to acidification of water bodies. In 2022, these discharges at Norilsk Nickel enterprises amounted to 168 million tons, most of which came from the Polar Division.
In addition, liquid waste can enter the environment during accidental spills. The largest such spill at Norilsk Nickel enterprises occurred on May 29, 2020 on the territory of CHPP-3 in Norilsk. As a result, about 20,000 tons of oil products ended up in the Bezymianny stream and the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers. The latter flows into the large lake Pyasino, connected to the Kara Sea. Rosprirodnadzor estimated the damage from this accident at 147.8 billion rubles.
Four years earlier, in 2016, another major spill occurred in Norilsk, albeit on a smaller scale. Contaminated water from the tailings pond of the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, owned by the Polar Division, ended up in the Daldykan River. Norilsk Nickel first denied the the accident, admitting to it only a week later.
As a consequence of the industrial activities of the Polar Branch, man-made wastelands, often called lunar landscapes in the media, have become the norm in the vicinity of Norilsk.
Specialists from the Central Siberian Botanical Garden (CSBS, Novosibirsk) determined that the diversity of plant communities in the Norilsk industrial region is 70-80% less than in unpolluted areas of the forest-tundra.
However, according to another study conducted by an international group of scientists from six countries, including Russia, and published in 2020 in the journal Ecology Letters, since the 1960s, when there was a sharp increase in industrial production in Norilsk, about 24 thousand square meters — equivalent to about 3,400 football fields — of boreal forest were destroyed thanks to associated emissions
Not surprisingly, the Polar Branch of Norilsk Nickel was included in the list of enterprises that cause the greatest harm to the environment, compiled in April 2018 by the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, which placed the enterprise in the highest hazard class. According to a 2012 study by the Blacksmith Institute (later renamed Pure Earth), Norilsk was included in the top 10 most polluted places on the planet in 2012.
“Within a radius of 30 kilometers from the city there is not a single living piece of grass or shrub,” said the organization’s founder, Richard Fuller, on the inclusion of Norilsk in the rating. “[Heavy metal] contamination was detected more than 60 kilometers [from the city].”
Emission reduction programs
At the same time, Norilsk Nickel regularly announces the implementation of environmental programs at its production facilities. Thus, in 2017, a program was launched to reduce harmful emissions at all the company’s industrial sites. Emssiosn were to decrease by 75% by 2023 compared to the 2015 level. In 2018, the company announced the imminent launch of another program, as a result of which sulfur dioxide emissions from the Polar Division were to be reduced by 45% by 2023 and by 90% by 2025, also compared to 2015 levels. It was planned to spend about $6 billion on both programs.
“My dream is that Norilsk will become not only a metallurgical, but also a tourist center,” said company president Vladimir Potanin at the time.
However, at the moment, the difference in emissions of the entire Norilsk Nickel between 2022 and the starting year of 2015, when they amounted to 2,063,500 tons, is 244,500 tons — that is less than 12%. As for the program to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions at the Polar Division, the so-called. Sulfur program — it started only recently, on October 25, 2023.
Norilsk Nickel in the Murmansk region
Correspondingly, at the second large industrial site of Norilsk Nickel, the Kola MMC in the Murmansk region, it was still possible to significantly reduce emissions — from 117,000 tons in 2018 to 16,000 tons in 2022. The vast majority of these emissions also consists of sulfur dioxide. However, due to their insignificance compared to the Polar Division, this did not affect the overall statistics of Norilsk Nickel. But this does not mean that the Kola MMC is harmless to the environment.
The Kola MMC spralws two production sites. These are “Pechenganikel” in the village of Nikel and the city of Zapolyarny in the north-west of the region and “Severonikel” in Monchegorsk, 100 km south of Murmansk. In relation to all three settlements of its presence, the company is a city-forming enterprise.
The production facilities of the Kola MMC belong to Pechenganikel and are located in a 25-kilometer strip between the village of Nikel and the city of Zapolyarny. The largest of them is the Severny mine. In addition to that, there is another mine and two quarries. Pechenganikel also includes processing plants, the most famous of which until recently was the smelting shop in the village of Nikel, which was closed in 2020. The plant mines sulfide copper-nickel ores, enriches them and carries out metallurgical processing into matte, an intermediate product, from which nickel, copper, sulfuric acid, and cobalt can then be obtained.
The enterprise in Monchegorsk processes imported high-grade matte. The main products are copper concentrate, nickel anodes, nickel tube furnace powder and sulfuric acid.
The total peak of emissions from both enterprises occurred in the 80s of the last century, when Pechenganikel alone emitted about 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year into the atmosphere. This led to mass protests by residents of the Norwegian commune of Sør-Varanger, from where the village of Nikel is 30 km in a straight line.
With a general decline in production in the 1990s, emissions from Pechenganikel also decreased and in 2000-2010 stabilized within the range of 100,000-160,000 tons of pollutants per year. However, even then, sulfur dioxide emissions from the site were five to eight times higher than the total SO2 emissions from all sources in Norway, and Pechenganickel continued to be the largest air polluter in the border commune of Sør-Varanger. Other toxic substances released from the site include heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic and lead.
The latest reduction in emissions from the Kola MMC is also largely due to the closure of production. If from 2018 to 2020 the company’s emissions decreased from 117 to 83 thousand tons, then in 2021 after the closure of the smelting shop in the village of Nikel on December 23, 2020 and the metallurgical shop in Monchegorsk in March 2021, they sharply decreased to 20,000 tons.
In Monchegorsk, the main pollutants emitted into the atmosphere are also sulfur dioxide, nickel and copper.
Manmade wastelands and ‘extremely dirty’ rivers
As in the case of Pechenganickel and the Polar Division, a man-made wasteland has formed and is expanding around the production of Severonickel. Forests in the Monchegorsk region are completely or partially burned as far away as 40 km south of the plant along the Priimandrovskaya Plain, and the soil is poisoned with heavy metals.
A similar situation is observed with water sources. Despite the closure of the smelter in Nikel, the Kola MMC, according to Roshydromet, Russia’s meteorological agency, is still one of the two main polluters in the Pechenga River basin. At the same time, the level of pollution of the Hauki-lampi-joki river in the Pechenga basin in 2022 increased from the level of “dirty” to “extremely dirty” due to the high content of nickel and manganese compounds within the range of 17-28 and 7-13 times the maximum permissible concentrations.
According to Russian legislation, this maximum concentration limit equates to the maximum concentration of chemical elements and their compounds in the environment that does not cause pathological changes or diseases in the human body when exposed to everyday life for a long time. At the same time, the state of plants and animals may be affected by concentrations significantly below the MPC.
In addition, in the Pechenga basin, excess concentrations of copper, mercury, zinc and sulfates are recorded. The content of cresyl dithiophosphate (used in the beneficiation of non-ferrous metal ores) in recent years has reached up to 3-6 MPC.
The water of the Nyuduay River in Monchegorsk from 2017 to 2022 is also assessed by Roshydromet as “dirty”. The main pollutants: nickel and copper compounds, the average annual concentrations of which in the long-term plan varied within the range of 21-54 MPC and 49-96 MPC, and the maximum concentrations were at the level of 31-124 and 93-299 MPC, respectively. There was also an excess of the maximum permissible concentration for the content of compounds of iron, mercury, manganese and sulfates.
Vorkuta is located 150 km north of the Arctic Circle and 180 km from the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The city owes its appearance to the Pechora coal basin. Coal mining began here in 1931. This was done by the labor of Gulag prisoners. The city itself was founded in 1936.
A whole scattering of mines and settlements appeared around it, the most distant of which is the now-shutteredHalmer-Yu, located approximately 90 km along the highway from the city. All of them are administratively part of the Vorkuta urban district with an area of 24.2 thousand sq. km.
Now there are four coal mines, including the world’s first coal mine beyond the Arctic Circle, Yunyaginsky. At the beginning of the 1990s, there were 13 operating mines.
The Vorkuta urban district is a single-industry town. All operating mines and open-pit mines belong to the city-forming enterprise, the Vorkutaugol joint stock company, the largest mining enterprise in the Russian Federation. Since December 2021, it has been part of Russian Energy Group LLC. In addition, Vorkutaugol includes a central processing plant for the production of coal concentrate, a mechanical plant, a transport enterprise and a number of other production facilities.
The list of enterprises of hazard class 1, published by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in 2018, included all 5 mines in the Vorkuta region operating at that time, as well as the CHPP-2 power plant.
However, one of these mines, Severnaya, was closed and flooded back in 2016 after two accidents with the release and explosion of methane, which led to the death of 36 people. One of the city’s main air pollutants, CHPP-2, whose high emissions were caused by the combustion of coal, was switched to gas in 2021, as was the entire city’s energy system.
Despite this, Vorkuta, based on the results of 2022, took 8th place in the list of Russian cities with the most polluted air with total emissions of 168 thousand tons.
The vast majority of them — 151 thousand tons — are hydrocarbons without volatile organic compounds. According to this indicator, Vorkuta took fourth place in the country, behind only three districts located in the main coal-mining region of the country — Kuzbass. In one of them, the Mezhdurechensky district, is the largest coal mine in Russia.
These statistics are explained by the fact that coal mining is characterized by high emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The Pechora coal basin, which includes the mines of the Vorkuta district (as well as the neighboring urban district of Inta), is characterized by high methane content of coal seams, which varies from 12 to 38 cubic meters per ton. For comparison, the average methane content of coal seams in Poland, the USA and India is 8-13, 7-14 and 5-8 cubic meters per ton respectively.
However, even closed mines produce methane. Thus, in 2019 in the United States, about 200 closed coal mines (with more than 500 operating) produced 8% of the total methane emissions in the country, or about 1% of the total greenhouse gases.
Other negative impacts
Underground coal mining is further characterized by pollution and disturbance of aquifers. Due to the constant pumping of water in mines, it reaches into the deep layers of the rock.
In addition, heavy metals — mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, as well as formaldehyde, sulfur, silicon dioxide — enter the atmosphere from mines, coal quarries and dumps. During fires, emissions of volatile organic compounds, soot, ash, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide are added to this.
Mines, dumps and cuts disrupt the natural profile of the soil, leading to disturbance of the topography and degradation of the vegetation cover. In addition, coal mines easily erode, becoming sources of dust pollution, and are capable of spontaneous combustion.
The Komi government, concerned about the problem of coal dumps around Vorkuta and Inta (another city located in the north of the republic), which began to form in the 1930s, is trying to get them included in the state register of objects of accumulated harm, which may give hope for their reclamation.
The adverse environmental consequences of coal mining in the Vorkuta region are accompanied by an acute socio-economic situation. The outflow of residents from here began in 1991, which marked the peak of the city’s population of 117,000 residents. As of 2021, the number of residents had decreased to 57,000people. According to Rosstat, Russia’s statistics bureau, Vorkuta is the fastest dying city in Russia.
Abandoned houses, neighborhoods and villages have become a kind of calling card of the Vorkuta region. On the territory of Vorkuta alone there are about 100 abandoned buildings, 80 of which are apartment buildings. Thus, they smoothly move into the category of objects of accumulated environmental damage.
Another side of this process is the lack of funds to maintain urban infrastructure in proper condition. So it was in 2022, on New Year’s Eve, the city’s wastewater treatment plants collapsed. They were put into operation in 1976 and have never been overhauled since then, and the Vorkuta Vodokanal was declared bankrupt back in 2016. As a result, the contents of the sewer were dumped into a nearby stream for almost three weeks, from where it flowed along the Vorkuta and Usa rivers into the Pechora River, which flows into the Barents Sea.
The Municipal district of Usinsk with an area of 30.5 thousand square kilometers is also located in the northern part of the Komi Republic. About a third of its territory is located beyond the Arctic Circle. However, the entire district is located in the Pechora basin. In July 2020, it was included in the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation.
The Usinsk region is the center of oil production in the region. About 70% of all oil in the republic is produced here. It was for this reason that it became infamous in 1994, when it suffered the largest onshore oil spill in world history.
Up to 200 thousand tons of oil spilled from the emergency pipeline. To eliminate the consequences of the accident, Russia had to borrow about $100 million from the World Bank. Work to collect oil that reached the Barents Sea and remediate spill sites was completed only in 2010. According to environmentalists, it will take at least 100 years for the territory to regenerate itself.
However, oil spills have occurred here regularly before. They still occur regularly, although there have been none of comparable scale.
The last major spill was recorded on July 2. A forest area with a total area of over 1.2 thousand hectares was damaged. Oil-containing liquid entered the Kolva River. Cleaning up the consequences of the spill took several weeks.
What complicates the situation is that statistics on oil spills vary greatly. Thus, according to the report of the Ministry of Natural Resources of Komi, in 2019, 22 accidents involving environmental pollution with oil products occurred in the republic, and in 2020, 38 accidents occurred, as a result of which 13.6 hectares of land were contaminated.
At the same time, the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources reports 17,000 accidents with oil spills in Russia in 2019 — equaling 46.5 accidents per day. Of these, 10,500 occurred on oil pipelines. These figures are based on statistics collected by the Central Dispatch Directorate of the Fuel and Energy Complex of Russia, which registers such accidents. For comparison, Rosprirodnadzor recorded only 819 oil spills across the country in the same year. In the covid year of 2020, according to the Central Dispatch Department of the Fuel and Energy Complex, the number of oil spills on pipelines was 8,600 thousand.
At the same time, Lukoil, which owns most of the fields in Komi, is the second largest oil spilling company in Russia with 1,508 oil spills in 2018 alone.
Considering the above, as well as the fact that in 2019-2020, 2.5-2.6% of Russian oil was produced in the region, the data from the Komi Ministry of Natural Resources look greatly underestimated.
Oil spills are profitable
According to estimates by the Central Dispatch Department of the Fuel and Energy Complex, 90% of Russia’s oil spills at pipelines occur due to pipe corrosion.
“We have an unspoken agreement that oil companies do not invest money in accident prevention, infrastructure, or liquidation of consequences — and thus reduce the cost of oil. And it is becoming more competitive in the international market,” says Ivan Ivanov, chairman of the Committee for the Rescue of Pechora, adding that such tactics are beneficial to the state.
In addition to this, information about oil production and its logistics in Russia is becoming harder to obtain. On February 22, 2023, a law was passed allowing the government to suppress any official statistics.
Since March 2023, Rosstat has stopped publishing oil production data in its official report. Also, beginning March 2023, the publication of monthly data on oil production (including gas condensate) in physical terms ceased. The secrecy of such information further limits the assessment of environmental risks in the Russian oil production sector.
In the meantime, according to the Komi Ministry of Natural Resources, more than 90% of the entire oil-contaminated territory of the region is located in the Usinsk region.
According to Roshydromet, in 2022 the water quality of the rivers in the river basin. Pechora continued to be assessed across a wide range from “slightly polluted” to “dirty”. The highest pollution of river water with oil products was recorded in 2022 at the mouth of the Pechora River above the city of Naryan-Mar (i.e. downstream of the main oil production facilities) in the amount of up to 4 MAC. Considering the situation with oil spill statistics, the question arises how different they are from the real state of affairs.
This is not a complete list of long-standing environmental hot spots in the Russian Arctic. Areas of severe pollution and disturbance of the natural environment are located in four more settlements in the Murmansk region, in the area of Arkhangelsk and Severodvinsk in the Arkhangelsk region, around the Deputatsky tin deposit in Yakutia, and so on. In particular, the neighboring Ukhta district in the Komi Republic and a number of territories of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug adjacent to both of them suffer from severe pollution with oil products.
Even though territories with a heavily disturbed and polluted environment are more often found in the European part of the Russian Arctic due to its greater development, they exist in every Arctic region of the country.
At the same time, emissions into the atmosphere from the Arctic sites of Norilsk Nickel and Gazprom alone are greater than those of the entire industry of Alaska and the Arctic zone of Canada combined.
However, the cessation of operation of a particular production does not mean that it automatically ceases to threaten the environment, and that nature around it is instantly restored. Thus, the tailings dump of the Deputatsky deposit, which ceased operation back in 1997, is still a serious source of contamination of nearby areas with iron and manganese.
Several new ones may soon be added to this list of environmental hot spots, including the Syradasaysky coal mine in Taimyr, which began operations this year. It is planned that when it reaches full capacity, 12 million tons of coal per year will be shipped from it.
Another candidate is the Vostok Oil project, unprecedented in terms of oil production volumes, owned by Rosneft — the company that, according to Greenpeace, holds the record for oil spills in Russia (4,253 pipeline spills in 2018). When reaching full capacity, Vostok Oil would ship 100 million tons of oil per year.
Considering the current strategy for the development of the Russian Arctic, based on the exploitation of natural resources, but not on environmental protection, there may be much more such installations.