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‘The situation is dire’ Here’s how Russian officials responded to the giant fuel spill now wreaking havoc in the Arctic
On May 29, there was an accident at the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company’s Heat and Power Plant Number 3 (the energy company is a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest industrial producer of nickel and palladium). The depressurization of a massive fuel storage tank resulted in more than 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaking into the surrounding soil and an adjacent river. Almost all of the river’s tributaries were filled with petrochemicals, with the amount of spillage exceeding the maximum level of permissible concentrations “many thousands of times,” said Svetlana Radionova, the head of Russia’s regulatory agency for natural resources, Rosprirodnadzor. Radionova’s comments came five days after the accident, during a video conference with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials on June 3. That same evening, federal authorities announced a state of emergency in Krasnoyarsk Krai. Emergency cleanup workers are now working to pump fuel out of the region’s Ambarnaya River, while investigators try to figure out who is to blame for news of the accident reaching Moscow so late. Meduza breaks down what happened in the immediate aftermath of the accident and why the cleanup is so problematic.
Emergency response workers are on the scene, but a complete cleanup job is unlikely
Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Alexander Uss arrived at the spill site on the morning of June 4, along with the head of Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry (MChS), Evgeny Zinichev, Rosprirodnadzor Director Svetlana Radionova, and Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shishkin. Together, they sought a way to mitigate the consequences of the fuel spill. “Today we will work out a solution and then we must execute it,” Zinichev announced at the start of а video conference with Vladimir Putin and other officials.
According to Rosprirodnadzor, of the 21,000 tons of fuel spillage, 6,000 tons have seeped into the surrounding soil, while the other 15,000 tons are in the waters of the Ambarnaya River and its tributary, the Daldykan River. Both rivers flow into a major lake, Lake Pyasino, which feeds into the Pyasina River, flowing into the Kara Sea (located on Russia’s arctic coast, in the Arctic Ocean).
Although spill took place on May 29, 100 emergency workers from the Marine Rescue Service have been operating at the spill site since June 1. On June 4, Gazprom-Neft’s accident and rescue team flew to Norilsk to help with the cleanup.
During video conference the day before (June 3), Vladimir Putin rebuked the Krasnoyarsk Krai governor for his slow response to the accident. During the meeting, Governor Uss claimed that completing cleanup in 14 days would be “problematic.” After fuel spillage has been siphoned out of the river with pumps, disposing of it presents a critical challenge. “The area is roadless for about 20 kilometers…The river itself is non-navigable… So the only option that’s being proposed is burning off the fuel in a commensurate volume… which is something we have no experience in, so announcing that this will get done successfully in a timeframe of 14 days is something that, unfortunately, I can’t do,” Uss said.
The head of the Natural Resources Ministry, Dmitry Kobylkin, also admitted that “the situation is dire,” and that he can’t conceive of “how to burn off such a massive quantity of fuel in Russia’s arctic zone.” “Honestly, I have doubts about the cleanup,” he said.
Special floating boom barriers were installed on the Ambarnaya River in order to contain the spilled diesel. But on the night of June 3, an ice drift burst the barrier, allowing a massive portion of the slick to travel under the booms — much of which is now in Pyasino Lake, the the head of the press service for Russia’s Federal Agency for Fisheries told Kommersant.
Nevertheless, after the video conference the next day, Rosprirodnadzor head Svetlana Radionova insisted that the fuel had not reached Pyasino Lake: “The work done by the cleanup team thus far is preventing any consequent inflow of petrochemicals from the Ambarnaya River into Lake Pyasino, and consequently, the Kara Sea.”
The head of the World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF) program for Business Environmental Responsibility, Alexey Knizhnikov, told Meduza that in his view, the cleanup workers are acting appropriately by consolidating the diesel slick with booms and directing it to the riverbank. He indicated that the purported ice drift said to have burst the barriers is nowhere to be found on the river (nor is any ice visible in any photos from the scene).
The press office of Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), the parent company of the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company, told Meduza that another 100 MChS workers arrived at the spill site on June 4, delivering temporary 16,000 ton fuel tanks for holding spillage.
As of June 4, cleanup workers have collected just 137 tons of diesel fuel from the surface of the Ambarnaya River, out of an estimated 15,000 tons of spillage. They’ve managed to extract 1,500 cubic meters of contaminated soil, and 201 tons of diesel fuel have been pumped out, according to Nornickel’s press office. Seven lines of boom barriers have been installed on the Ambarnaya.
Sergey Shakhmatov, Executive Director of the Russian Ecological Party (otherwise known as “The Greens”), visited the accident site and told Meduza that there was visible contamination on the surface of both the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers. But as he explained, because the Daldykan flows into Ambarnaya and will eventually carry all of the spillage downstream, the cleanup effort is concentrated on this section of the Ambarnaya.
Currently, burning up the collected fuel is not a viable option. A representative of Nornickel told Meduza that if conditions will allow for storing the spillage, the plan is to take it out of the area by vehicle after the seasonal frost melts; if that’s not possible, it will be carried away in the near future on makeshift roads (these will have to be built). Cleanup workers will also treat the riverbanks with sorbents (materials used to absorb liquids and gases).
“As of yet no one has managed to corral more than half of the pollution in the water,” said WWF official Alexey Knizhnikov. “The rest will remain in the water or evaporate, the riverbanks will remain contaminated, [but] the diesel fuel residue can already be safely removed from [there].”
In his opinion, the damage to the marine environment will inevitably be severe: “As opposed to crude oil, diesel fuel has nasty carcinogenic components — for example, benzene — that are lethal to living organisms. Those organisms will get a massive dose of toxic chemicals. We still don’t know how much fuel will dissolve, and how much damage will be inflicted as a result. But the fines should be based on this.”
The Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Elena Panova, asserted that the restoration of the surrounding environment in the Norilsk region will take at least 10 years. “There’s no place to collect it, there are no roads, and there are no containers. Burning it is out of the question,” she said.
Is someone being slick?
During the video conference, Putin was astounded by the discrepancy between the official accounts from the regional authorities, MChS, and the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company, acknowledged presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
Officials spent a significant amount of time trying to clarify whether the accident was reported in a timely manner. When reporting to Putin on the Norilsk spill, MChs head Evgeny Zinichev claimed that his office received information about the emergency on May 31, two days after the emergency actually occurred. And by his own account, Governor Uss found out about the accident from social media — at the same time as the Norilsk-Taimyr facility’s emergency response team was making their initial claims that there was no environmental damage in the surrounding area.
“Only after the appearance of disturbing information on social media sites and the persistent questioning of the relevant officials on the morning of Monday [May 31] did a realistic picture of the accident emerge,” Uss said.
However, the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company responded that it directed a copy of its official incident report to law enforcement on May 29. The company insists that MChS received information about the situation in a matter of minutes.
Nornickel maintains that it informed the Ministry of Emergency Situations in a timely manner. “A message about a diesel fuel leak was received at 12:55 p.m. on May 29 from the dispatcher, and at 12:57 p.m. this was confirmed by specialists at the plant. At 13:08, operational information was sent to the joint dispatching department of the Siberian power system in Kemerovo. At 13:10. the operational information was then transmitted to the unified dispatcher service on duty (a part of the Norilsk Department for Civil Defense and Emergency Situations Administration),” Nornickel said in a statement.
At 14:59, an official form indicating that an emergency had occurred was sent to the unified dispatcher service. “Subsequently, Nornickel regularly sent information to the requisite organizations about the emergency and measures taken,” the company claims.
According to Meduza’s source close to the MChS leadership, any information about an emergency situation or the threat of an emergency sent to the unified on-duty dispatch service (which is under the jurisdiction of municipal and regional authorities) is then automatically transmitted to a regional crisis management center under the territory’s emergencies ministry. “Judging by the fact that information about the incident is even on the official site of the MChS, it happened — and this means that at a federal level, the Ministry found out about the incident from the regional report on the morning [of May 30] at the latest,” the source told Meduza. According to television channel RenTv, a report about the depressurization of a fuel storage tank with “a clear indication of a volume of 30,000 cubic meters” was listed in the “internal documents of the agency” on the morning of May 30.
“The unified dispatcher service and the centre for crisis management would transfer a report about such an emergency to the Krasnoyarsk regional Committee for Emergency Services, which includes the governor and the head of the territorial Department of MChS”, Meduza’s source noted.
According to Peskov, Putin drew attention to the inconsistencies in the information presented to him by officials and company management about when the authorities received notification about the incident in Norilsk. As such, law enforcement agencies were given “instructions to find out the truth” and determine “whether all the standards for emergency notification of authorities and services related to emergencies were met.”
On June 4 the Investigative Committee opened a criminal investigation “in connection with the untimely notification of an emergency situation” under Article 293.1 of the Criminal Code (relating to negligence). Investigators have begun seizing pertinent documents, including “recordings of telephone calls of employees responsible for making notifications, and logs in connection with the emergency.”
Cleanup will have extraordinary costs. Three criminal cases are underway.
The Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company is a subsidiary of Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin’s Nornickel. The company’s revenue in 2019 was almost $14 billion, with a net profit of $6 billion. On the morning of June 4, the price Nornickel shares fell more than those of any other company on the Moscow Stock Exchange. By 1:05 p.m. Moscow time, based on news about the major diesel fuel spill at the Nornickel-owned Heat and Power Plant Number 3, the company’s shares had fallen by almost 7.5 percent.
The Investigative Committee announced that experts in construction, technology, and ecology, amongst others, had been appointed to conduct inspections to determine the scope of damage inflicted, as well as the cause of the accident.
Nornickel is attributing the accident to the thawing of permafrost and the consequent sinking of the reserve fuel tank’s supports into the ground. The company promises to do additional research. According to Vedomosti, there was no system for monitoring for cracks or fissures in place at the facility — though at one point the company was involved in negotiations for buying equipment that monitors for cracks in fuel tanks — equipment that could have averted the disaster.
Svetlana Radionova assessed the damages as amounting to “not just tens [but] possibly hundreds of billions of rubles” (anywhere from $1–15 billion). Former Rosprirodnadzor deputy director Oleg Mitvol estimated a hundred billion rubles worth of damage (around $1.5 billion). Greenpeace’s estimate, which only accounts for damages to bodies of water, is at least 6–7 billion rubles (between $87–100 million).
According to Nornickel President Vladimir Potanin, the company is planning to pay for the cleanup in full and is estimating costs in excess of 10 billion rubles ($146 million), without taking into account potential fines for environmental damage. The company could also face tens of millions of rubles in fines, Maxim Khudalov, the head of Russia’s Analytical Credit Rating Agency’s (ACRA) sustainable development risk assessment group, told RBK.
Besides the criminal investigation into negligence, there are two other investigations underway: one under Article 254 of the Russian Criminal Code, and another under Article 246 (both deal with violations of environmental protections by industrial entities). The three cases are being looked at together and have been transferred to the central office of the Investigative Committee. The authorities have arrested one person so far: Vyacheslav Starostin, the head of the Norilsk-Taimyr plant’s boiler-turbine department. He declined to provide testimony and is scheduled to be charged in the near future.
By Putin’s order, the situation has now been placed under the “special jurisdiction” of the Attorney General. The power plant’s general director has been warned about the “inadmissibility of any further violations of the law when operating other especially dangerous industrial facilities.” The Prosecutor’s Office also instructed the regional Rosprirodnadzor department to conduct an unannounced inspection of the business’ facilities. The inspection is underway and will take 20 days, added Svetlana Radionova.
On June 1, Radionova wrote on her Instagram account that employees of Rosprirodnadzor’s Yenisei department had arrived at the spill site, but were not allowed to enter the power plant. She promised that the incident would be followed by an administrative investigation.
Meduza’s source in the government said that on June 3, Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko ordered an assessment of the technical conditions of other hazardous industrial facilities in the Arctic to determine the risk of any future accidents.
Translated by Rob Viano
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