Norway reports dramatic spike in atmospheric sulfur levels in Northwest Russia – offending industry shrugs its shoulders

Wastelands surrounding the Kola Peninsula industrial town of Nikel.
Thomas Nilsen for Bellona

Publish date: July 13, 2007

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Translated by: Charles Digges

MURMANSK - The Norwegian Institute for Air Research has registered a shocking leap of sulfur levels in the atmosphere above Russia’s Northwest city of Nikel in the Murmansk Region, which have jumped to 20 percent above permissible concentration in just the last three weeks.

Concentrations of nickel production in Northwest Russia are responsible for the dramatic change, and Norwegian State Television NRK reports that air along Norway’s border with Russia has increased in sulfur concentration twofold over measurements taken in recent years. Norwegian authorities have issued a public statement of concern for the inhabitants of Nikel.

“To see similar emissions levels, we have to look back at the period right after the collapse of the Soviet Union (in 1991),” said Lars Robert Hole, senior researcher for the Norwegian Air Institute.
“If this had happened in Norway, the whole region would have been evacuated.”

Long-term exposure to airborne sulfur dust can cause irritation to human mucous membranes, bronchiopulmonary disease, which can further be complicated by emphysema and brochiectasis. Symptoms include a wet cough with mucous often containing sulfur dusts, which is a result of upper respiratory tract irritation that can lead to asthma and sinus irritation, the US Center for Disease Control said in an interview with Bellona Web.

Bellona and Nature and Youth file official inquiries
The environmental groups Nature and Youth and Bellona Murmansk have today filed official inquiries with the Murmansk Regional Adminisration’s Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, the Nikel branch of the federal Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS), the Murmansk Hydro-meteorology Centre and the Norilsk Nikel, the operator of the region’s nickel smelting plants.

“In our opinion, there are reasons to state that a serious environmental problem is being silenced in the Murmansk region,” said Nature and Youth’s Vilatly Servetnik and Nina Lesikhina of Bellona Murmansk.
“We don’t believe that the Norilsk Nikel concern does not have enough money to return the situation to normal.”

Nickel operation comments – and brings environmental outrage
On Friday, the operators of the nickel smelting plants in the Murmansk Region offered only cold comfort.

“We know the whole situation at the current time, but we will not comment on anything relative to the excitement surrounding it,” representatives told Bellona Web.

Others contacted by Bellona Web yesterday have yet to weigh in, and Ecologist are not satisfied.
“The responsible parties refuse to comment on the developing situation and are completely ignoring the concern of social organisations,” said Bellona Murmansk head Andrei Zolotkov.

“It is reminiscent of the Soviet principle of ‘I am the boss – you are a fool.”

Nikel residents complain of air quality
NRK interviewed with several residents of Nikel who said that rain had burned holes in their umbrellas and that they were afraid of going outdoors because the air quality was “suffocating” them.

Local media published an interview with the Norilsk Nikel’s owners, who said that the situation was normal and that Norwegian television had hyped the situation, whipping up fear among residents.

One of Nikel’s 16,000 inhabitants, Olga Torubayeva, contradicted the notion that the media reports did not raise delusional concerns.

“No, the majority of Nikel inhabitants are concerned with this, especially those, who have children and do not leave for vacations,” she said in an interview with Bellona Web. “When the wind is still in Nikel, it is impossible to breath, it is impossible to walk in the streets. If you ask, the majority of the people would answer the same. I would like to flee somewhere, but I have nowhere to flee."

Hole from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research says that recommended level of sulfur concentration in Norway is 350 micrograms per cubical metre of air. The measurements taken in Nikel, less than 100 kilometers from the Norwegian border, showed levels 20 times exceeding these limits.

“So far, the situation in Nikel has not influenced the parameters in Norway, but this can change,” said Hole.

MChS says all OK
Nikel residents told Bellona Web that “now it is very difficult to breath, but this is usual situation when the south winds blow,” and emissions go to Nikel and to Norway.

“My car is now all in black ashes,” one Murmansk local who drove to Nikel more than a week ago, said. According to another resident: “now (the Nikel smelting plant) uses local ore, which is less poisonous, and the emissions now are lower.”

A dispatcher of the local branch of the MChS told Bellona Web that “everything is ok, and no complaints were addressed to us.”

Plant operator admits to problems in air quality
However, a Murmansk web site quotes an official press release by the Kola Mining Company, one of the plants near Nikel, as telling a different story.

“Since June 20 until now, adverse meteorological conditions in the settlement of Nikel have been promoting the accumulation of harmful polluting substances in the ground layer of atmospheric air. The prevailing wind direction has been northeast,” the statement read.

“To decrease gas concentrations in the air, while wind directions are like this, the Hyrponikel Insitute and the Kola Mining Company developed special measures, and during this period they were carried out: The company used only two production lines simultaneously… and loads on the furnaces did not exceed the maximum, set by the Institute for such conditions. Raw material, containing less sulfur, was used.”

The company also said in its statement that such situations, “caused by adverse weather conditions,” occur annually. Usually they do not lead to violations of the emission limits for sulfur dioxide.

“We expect total emissions of sulfur dioxide for 2007 in Zapolyarny and Nikel will not be increased and will stay at the 2006 level,” the Kola Mining Company release concluded.

According, the Murmansk Regional Centre for Environmental monitoring confirms the increase of sulfur dioxide levels in Nikel in recent days. Some days the concentration exceeded the norm by five times. Weather forecasts for Nikel show “adverse conditions” will last for the next several days.

Vladislav Nikiforov reported from Oslo and Rashid Alimov reported from St. Petersburg. Bellona Murmank staff also contributed to this report.