The cleanup and the cover-up After 17,000 tons of diesel spilled into Arctic waters, Russian officials took two full days to react. Then, they spread falsehoods about when they learned the spill had happened.
On May 29, 17,000 tons of diesel fuel spilled out of a faulty tank in the northern Siberian city of Norilsk, flooding the surrounding waterways with a red slick easily visible by satellite. The tank was part of the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company’s Thermal Power Plant No. 3, whose parent firm, Norilsk Nickel, is known for its connections to other ecological disasters. According to Nornickel, the latest spill stemmed from melting permafrost underneath the corroding tank; northern Siberia is currently undergoing a major heat wave. Officials estimate that cleaning the Norilsk spill will take at least half a year, while the environment surrounding the city will take at least a decade to recover as the climate crisis continues to take its toll. Amid that recovery, one key question is why government officials learned about and acted on the historic spill days after it happened. Meduza special correspondents Maxim Solopov and Anastasia Yakoreva reconstructed the initial response to the Norilsk disaster using internal documents from the Emergencies Ministry and interviews with government employees.
The beginning of June gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a rude awakening about how well he really understands what goes on inside his country. By the time Putin learned that Thermal Power Plant No. 3 (TETs-3) in Norilsk had a failed fuel tank, 17,000 tons (21,000 cubic meters) of diesel had already spilled into the surrounding landscape, risking pollution as far as the Kara Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The volume of pollution released puts this disaster in line with the top 10 oil spills in human history. Rather than learning about the spill directly from local officials, however, Putin was informed of the disaster after a deputy prime minister noticed news reports and public social media posts about it.
On June 3, Putin responded by calling an online meeting that included the regional governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, the federal Emergencies Minister, and the head of the company that owns the power plant, each of whom eagerly put responsibility for reporting the spill onto the other two. Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev claimed that his officials only found out about the spill on May 31; Governor Alexander Uss said the plant’s employees reported a fire incident as early as the morning of May 29 but did not report any ecological damage. The Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company’s Sergey Lipin provided as few details as possible, arguing only that his firm did report a spill and follow clean-up protocols.
Putin was hardly satisfied. At one point in the meeting, he asked Lipin, “So are we going to learn about emergencies from social media now? Really? Is everything all right with your health over there?”
The day of the meeting, Russia’s federal Investigative Committee opened a criminal negligence case “in connection with the untimely distribution of information about the emergency” at the power plant, prompting Norilsk Nickel to release its communication record about the spill immediately. The first suspect named in the case was Norilsk Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin.
After the case against Akhmetchin was opened, Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Alexander Uss changed his tune, arguing that his administration had been repeatedly misinformed about the scale of the diesel spill in Norilsk. “You can’t explain [this disinformation] except by calling it an attempt to cover up what happened or the magnitude of what happened,” Uss told journalists.
Investigators allege that Akhmetchin coordinated improperly with other city-level officials, especially those in Emergency Services. That’s the office that handles incidents like the TETs-3 spill by responding to emergency calls made to the hotline 112.
Meduza obtained access to internal documents, including records of 112 communications, from the National Crisis Management Center, which is a part of Russia’s Emergencies Ministry. These records reveal who said what about the Nornickel spill and when. We found that government officials did not tell the truth about when their agencies first learned of the spill. They also told Nornickel and the city of Norilsk to handle the resulting environmental damage on their own dime even when the scale of the disaster was clear to all involved.
When did the Emergencies Ministry learn about the diesel spill?
Russia’s Emergencies Minister, Yevgeny Zinichev, told President Vladimir Putin that his ministry only learned about the disaster in Norilsk on May 31. That’s two days after the fuel tank actually failed, releasing thousands of tons of diesel.
The first person to notify officials about the spill was a guard at the Norilsk power plant. She called 112 at 12:51 PM to say that fuel had spilled onto a road. At 12:52, she reported that a car on the road had caught fire. Norilsk resident Andrey Afinogenov said he had been driving down the road when he noticed a large puddle up ahead. Thinking it was water, he kept driving, but the flow of liquid suddenly rose, and he realized it smelled like fuel. Afinogenov told Baza that he escaped from the roof of his Nissan Almera as flames began to consume the vehicle. The Almera’s body sits 16 cm (more than 6 in) above ground, so the river of diesel must have been at least half a foot deep to have been ignited by the heat of the car.
Four minutes after Afinogenov’s car caught fire, Nornickel’s headquarters got a message from the power station’s dispatcher and forwarded it, once again, to 112. At about the same time, 12:55, the regional Emergencies Ministry posted a public notice about the spill and the burning car on its website. Nornickel couldn’t explain to Meduza why its headquarters only learned about the spill when Afinogenov’s car caught fire, not when the tank first failed.
It took about two hours for Nornickel and Emergencies Ministry firefighters to put out the flames surrounding the spill. Photos and videos from the scene obtained by Meduza show a turbulent flow of diesel. One worker points to what looks like a stream running through the snow and says, “And that leak right there is pure diesel fuel running along.”
Two hours after the spill, at 3:00 PM local time, 112 operator D.V. Kulayev sent the Emergencies Ministry’s TsUKS an internal report. He named the fuel tank that had depressurized and specified that it contained 21,000 cubic meters of diesel. Kulayev also noted that he informed both local and regional emergency officials about the spill.
In short, the regional Emergencies Ministry was informed multiple times about the disaster and its scale within hours of the fuel spill itself. Both Meduza sources and the television station REN-TV said a report on the spill was then included in the following morning’s briefing for the Emergencies Ministry’s federal headquarters.
By June 3, however, the Emergencies Ministry’s story had changed. Regional officials falsely claimed that no fuel leak had been sighted on the day of the car fire. The Emergencies Minister himself, Yevgeny Zinichev, said in his briefing to Vladimir Putin that the 112 service only reported an actual spill on the morning of May 31.
In response to requests from Meduza, the Emergencies Ministry’s press service said the 112 reports it received were too vague to convey the scale of what had happened. Ministry representatives said they had only been informed that there was a fire and that “the situation had no effect on the [power plant’s] operations,” not that diesel had spilled out into the surrounding environment. When we asked how the Ministry could have ignored firefighters’ reports of a massive fuel leak, its press service did not respond.
How much did the regional governor know?
Alexander Uss, the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, also pinned responsibility for misrepresenting the Norilsk diesel spill on local officials. During his call with Vladimir Putin, Uss claimed that “when the location was examined, no pollution was spotted in the Ambarnaya River, and no characteristic diesel odor was present.” He said it was only on the morning of May 31 that social media reports prompted regional officials to ask “tough questions” of those on the ground and discover “a realistic picture of what had happened.”
His claims were false. All day on May 30, Norilsk’s 112 operator on duty tried to discover the scale of the diesel spill, and he continuously updated the Emergencies Ministry about what he learned. The operator’s efforts were preserved in an official daily log obtained by Meduza.
At 1:00 PM that day, a source that is not identified in the log informed 112 that the diesel spill had reached the Ambarnaya River, which flows 12 km (7.5 miles) away from the thermal power plant on its way into Pyasino Lake and then the Kara Sea, a part of the Arctic Ocean. The 112 operator included this information in his messages to the Emergencies Ministry’s TsUKS.
When Governor Uss stated falsely that no pollution had been observed in the Ambarnaya River, he appeared to be echoing an unrelated piece of information: a 112 employee who was deployed by boat to examine the river’s inflow into Pyasino Lake said “stains from [combustible fuel] have not been observed, and no characteristic diesel odor is present.” The employee was not talking about whether the diesel had reached the river in the first place; he was talking about how far it had gone at the time.
Later in the day, both 112 and the TsUKS had received new reports confirming that all of the tank’s contents had spilled into the environment. By nighttime, 112 officials told the regional Emergencies Ministry that Nornickel was using booms and pumps to clean diesel out of local waters.
At 9:45 AM on May 31, 112 sent an additional message summarizing the situation. The message again named the amount of diesel spilled. It also reviewed Nornickel’s cleanup efforts to that point: employees had spent the previous two days working on the power station’s grounds, sucking up 100 tons of fuel from nearby lowlands, and surveying the Ambarnaya River and Pyasino Lake by boat and helicopter. Both the regional governor and the national Emergencies Ministry have officially claimed that they only heard about the scale of the spill at this point, almost 48 hours after the spill occurred and information about its volume became available.
What did regional and federal officials do once they knew about the spill?
Even though everybody involved understood the scale of the spill by the morning of May 31, neither regional nor federal officials offered much material aid on the ground in Norilsk. That task fell largely to Nornickel’s employees, 67 of whom were already using 35 machines to clean up the spill.
On May 31, the regional Emergencies Ministry held a meeting at noon to review the development of the spill. Three hours later, another meeting was held at an even higher level, with a deputy governor presiding over the regional Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of Emergencies. The Commission instituted a state of emergency, but it assigned the bulk of the cleanup effort to locals in Norilsk. Mayor Rinat Akhmetchin was left in charge of disaster response, and all responsibility for funding and supplying the cleanup effort fell to him and Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company CEO Sergey Lipin. The regional Emergencies Ministry was only asked to collect information, not provide material aid.
In the meantime, a tent city was being set up for “liquidators” assigned to stop the spread of diesel through the Ambarnaya. Photographs of eight enclosed communal tents have circulated online; what risk of infection this may pose to employees is unclear. Krasnoyarsk Krai has reported about 150 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 per day, with the city of Norilsk averaging about a dozen per day.
On June 1, three days after the spill began, a text message went out to the leaders of Russia’s federal Emergencies Ministry. According to the data we obtained from Russia’s national TsUKS to read this text message, the Ministry did not follow up with any questions or orders to its regional-level partners.
That evening, however, regional officials began flying to Norilsk. Deputy Governor Anatoly Tsykalov complained that his administration would have been able to react more quickly if they had known about the spill earlier; he again placed the blame for this “untimely information” on local officials, who in fact informed regional emergency responders of the spill immediately after it was first reported.
Only one federal agency, the Transport Ministry’s Maritime Rescue Service, volunteered aid to Norilsk. The service sent 12 employees and eight tons of barriers to help contain the spill and skim diesel out of local waters. On June 2, General Igor Lisin of the regional Emergencies Ministry gave a speech indicating that Russia’s federal Emergencies Ministry had also sent eight employees and two machines to participate in the cleanup process. Meduza obtained the text of the speech, which was given in a private meeting with regional Emergencies Ministry leaders. In it, Lisin repeats the falsehood that the news of the spill only became available to regional officials on May 31, and he argues that “there’s enough power and enough funds for us to liquidate the consequences of this emergency.” General Lisin concluded, “We plan to complete the liquidation process within 14 days. There, I’ve finished my report!”
Meduza sent a list of questions about the spill both to Russia’s federal Emergencies Ministry and to its Krasnoyarsk Krai regional branch. We asked officials to explain why they continued to insist that regional leaders were only fully informed of the Norilsk spill on May 31 despite the fact that they received news of the disaster on May 29 and 30. We also asked why regional officials left the bulk of the cleanup to the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company itself and why a regional leader called the resulting resources “enough.”
The regional Emergencies Ministry branch declined to respond to our queries, citing the ongoing criminal investigation: “All the necessary materials have been provided to the proper investigative agencies,” a representative said. The federal Ministry’s press service also declined comment.
How did the news get to Putin?
While local officials and Nornickel employees kept trying to contain the diesel spill on their own, top-level federal officials finally found out about the problem from an unexpected source. On June 1, aides to Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko noticed news and social media reports about the spill online — according to a source in the prime minister’s cabinet, Putin was not kidding when he scolded power plant officials for leaving him to learn about his country’s disasters through social networks.
Photographs, videos, and testimonials about the spill started appearing online during the day on May 30. Many posts referenced a video taken by a local man: in it, the man points to the red waters of the Ambarnaya, scoops up some of the diesel-infused river in a plastic bottle, inserts a piece of paper, and lights the liquid on fire. “This is just a river of diesel running by. Please, come on over and fuel up your car,” the man says.
Thanks in part to videos like these, environmental activists and organizations were able to put pressure on the Russian federal government as well. On June 1, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a press release in Russian urging the Emergencies Ministry, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, and the Transport Ministry to help organize the liquidation effort.
Meduza’s source within the executive cabinet said that Abramchenko got involved after she heard about the disaster in part because she had already had negative experiences with the Krasnoyarsk Krai government when it came to environmental crises. In February 2020, the region declared a “black sky” alert due to extreme air pollution; these alerts are issued with some regularity in the Norilsk area. “She called Uss, tried to clarify the details, asked him why he wasn’t talking to people, why he wasn’t explaining anything. She was told, ‘C’mon, calm down, nothing’s happening, we’ll deal with it on our own, everything’s okay here.’ In the end, Abranchenko sent [chief environmental regulator Svetlana] Radionova to Krasnoyarsk to figure out what was actually going on there. But in the regions, people don’t like that because if the feds pay you a visit, that means the local government hasn’t been able to handle the situation,” Meduza’s source explained.
This time around, Abramchenko sent Radionova to Krasnoyarsk once again. After receiving her orders on June 2, Radionova examined the scene of the disaster on June 3, when Nornickel and the Norilsk government were still handling the cleanup process on their own. She then reported back on the scale of the spill to the federal government.
“Then, Abramchenko brought that information to [Prime Minister] Mikhail Mishustin, and then the information was passed on to the president’s administration. They worked with the Emergencies Ministry to decide on a state of emergency, and then they ultimately planned the [June 3] meeting with Putin,” our source continued. The executive cabinet’s press secretary declined to comment.
How did Putin’s meeting change the situation?
On the morning of June 3, Emergencies Minister Zinichev had planned to fly to his hometown, St. Petersburg. He had already ordered one of his deputies to take over as acting minister during his time away, said a source close to the Emergencies Ministry’s leadership. However, his travel plans were interrupted by a sudden announcement that he would soon be appearing in a video conference with the president.
Zinichev immediately demanded reports and reference materials about the Norilsk spill from his subordinates. They clarified the quantity of diesel released and informed Zinichev that any spill over 5,000 tons would automatically trigger a federal-level state of emergency.
In the few morning hours that remained before the conference began, the Emergencies Ministry’s team for fighting the spill tripled from 98 people to 300. Granted, most of its new members were Nornickel employees — only 48 of the 300 were from the Ministry’s firefighting squad, according to a directory obtained from the national TsUKS. Immediately before Putin’s video call, 100 aerial troops from the Ministry’s Siberian Rescue Center were mobilized on Zinichev’s orders.
They arrived from Novosibirsk to Norilsk by airlifter only the following morning, around the same time as Zinichev himself. On June 5, the group was joined at the site of the spill by Sergey Shakhmatov, who directs the ecological group Russian Greens. After Shakhmatov examined the scene, he estimated that the diesel released would take six months to clean up.
By the morning of June 6, the number of people involved in the cleanup operation had risen to 380. By June 10, it was 681 people and 266 machines, 140 and 16 of which were from the federal Emergencies Ministry. That sudden mobilization had become possible in part thanks to the federal state of emergency declaration that emerged from Putin’s video conference. Ironically, however, the president’s approval was never needed for that declaration to be made. The Emergencies Ministry’s leadership already had the authority to take reactive measures beginning June 1 at the earliest, a source within the ministry itself told Meduza.
The consequences of regional and federal government inaction following the Norilsk spill are already becoming clear. In mid-June, independent ecologist Georgy Kavanosyan visited the waterways downstream from the spill. By June 19, he had posted a video on his YouTube channel in which he found diesel levels 2.5 times the permitted standard not in the Ambarnaya River but in the outflow from Pyasino Lake toward the Arctic Ocean. According to The Siberian Times, Kavanosyan’s findings show that heavier diesel components invisible to the naked eye have been able to sink underneath the barriers set up by liquidators, and much of that diesel has already reached the Arctic Ocean. Norilsk Nickel has claimed that it was able to contain the historic flow of pollution away from the sea. If Kavanosyan is correct, however, the ecological damage done has already become irreversible and reached much farther than Nornickel has acknowledged.
English version by Hilah Kohen