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Journalists uncover ‘Norilsk Nickel’ plant pumping toxic wastewater into the Russian tundra

Source: Meduza

The Talnakh Concentrator Plant, which belongs to industrial giant Norilsk Nickel, has been dumping industrial wastewater into the tundra in the Russian Arctic, reported the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on June 27.

The location of the Talnakh Concentrator Plant in the Arctic city of Norilsk (Krasnoyarsk territory)

Working with Greenpeace Russia activists and Vasily Ryabinin — who left his job as the deputy head of the Norilsk Rosprirodnadzor department (Russia’s regulatory agency for natural resources) at the beginning of June — Novaya Gazeta journalists were able to locate the drainage area. 

Over the weekend of June 27-28, Novaya Gazeta published several videos from the site, which is located on the territory of the factory’s tailings dam (a type of artificial dam typically used to store the byproducts of mining operations). According to Greenpeace Russia, the dam is intended for storing liquid waste containing heavy metals and surfactants. Instead, pumps were draining liquid from the tailings dam and funneling it into the surrounding tundra. From there, the industrial wastewater flowed through streams to the Kharayelakh River, which feeds into Lake Pyasino. Greenpeace noted a strong unpleasant smell in the area, as well as dead trees.

“This is lawlessness and a crime against nature and our children. Cleanup needs to begin immediately,” Vasily Ryabinin stated. Along with the Greenpeace activists and Novaya Gazeta journalists, Ryabinin called law enforcement, the Emergency Situations Ministry, Rosprirodnadzor, and the prosecutor’s office to the draining site.

In response to the call, Norilsk emergency services arrived almost immediately. “Now the leadership will decide what to do. It’s good that everything has been reported. I had also heard before that something was being siphoned off into the tundra here,” said Vladimir Zhenikhov, the duty senior on the emergency services team.

Norilsk Nickel’s own security team also showed up at the drainage site, at which point the pumping station siphoning wastewater into the river was turned off. Workers began cleaning the pipes that were pouring the polluted water into the tundra. According to Novaya Gazeta, they worked in such a hurry that a caterpillar tractor accidentally crushed the police car that had brought employees from the prosecutor’s office to the site. The police later reported that no one was hurt during the accident. According to preliminary reports, the tractor driver “didn’t make sure the maneuver was safe.”

The Krasnoyarsk territory’s Emergency Situations Ministry initially told Ria Novosti that what Greenpeace, Novaya Gazeta, and Ryabinin had discovered was a leak that occurred during the unauthorized siphoning of unspecified liquids from the tailings dam. The ministry said that it planned to assess the scale of the contamination now that the pumping had stopped; specialists were set to take samples of the discharged fluids. Meanwhile, the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry to verify the reports about the dumping of toxic waste into the tundra. Nornickel, on the other hand, maintained that “there is no threat of waste (tailings) leakage.”

Rosprirodnadzor Head Svetlana Radionova later reported that the liquid was deliberately pumped out of a sump of recycled water at the Talnakh Concentrator Plant. They decided to siphon off the water “for the prevention of possible emergency situations,” since the water level in the sump had increased during testing of a hot water pipeline, and due to rainfall.

At the end of May, a large-scale fuel spill at another Nornickel subsidiary caused massive environmental damage in the Russian Arctic. Approximately 20,000 tons of diesel fuel leaked out of a damaged reservoir at the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company’s Thermal Power Plant No. 3 in Norilsk, spreading into nearby rivers and the surrounding soil. Local authorities took several days to respond to the accident. Since then, a number of criminal cases have been launched over the spill, including against employees at the plant and the mayor of Norilsk.

After the fuel spill, Novaya Gazeta journalists Elena Kostyuchenko and Yuri Kozyrev travelled to Taimyr to report on the accident. During their two week reporting trip, law enforcement detained them multiple times and limited their movements; on one occasion, police chased the boat they were sailing in along the river. On June 27, employees at the Norilsk airport prevented Moscow City Duma Deputy Sergey Mitrokhin from taking the samples of contaminated soil and water that Novaya Gazeta journalists had given him out of the city for analysis. 

Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart

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