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Russia’s ‘River of Blood’

Today, Siberia’s Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers are running red with 20,000 tons of spilled oil. In response, President Putin has declared a state of emergency

The epicenter of this environmental catastrophe is Norilsk, second largest city of the Arctic Circle. Norilsk contains the largest nickel-copper-palladium deposits in the world, and is a bustling industrial hub in Russia’s ‘sleeping land’. It is also the namesake of Norilsk Nickel, or Nornickel, the Russian mining and metallurgy giant.

The leak occurred after a fuel tank collapse at Norilsk power plant. Due to exceptionally hot temperatures, Arctic permafrost is melting away out of season. As a result, the ground holding the fuel tank suddenly sunk, causing the tank to rupture. Norilsk’s local environment is infamously polluted, emitting so much heavy metal pollution that the soil surrounding the city can be mined

Plant managers attempted to resolve the spill on their own, and hid it from local authorities. By the time they discovered the catastrophe, it was too late to contain the bulk of the oil. The plant director is currently in custody as federal authorities work to contain the leak.

This isn’t the first time the Daldykan became a ‘river of blood’. In 2016, Nornickel’s Nadezhda Plant suffered a dam overflow. Investigations were inconclusive as to whether the area suffered from aftereffects. 

The situation is complicated further by Nornickel’s considerable political influence. Oligarch Vladimir Potanin took shares in 1995 amidst Russia’s post-Soviet privatization frenzy. Since, he’s gobbled up over a third of Nornickel. 

Potanin and Putin are close. However, this hasn’t stopped Putin from threatening him in the past. A decade ago, the Russian President warned he would levy fines against Nornickel if they refused to modernize and reduce emissions. After the 2016 spill, Nornickel was fined an undisclosed amount – but the maximum possible was a paltry $635.

Given the spill’s magnitude and visibility, it’s likely that Putin will make a point of rectifying the issue. Whether this takes the form of serious fines or symbolic punishments is difficult to know.

Despite the Arctic’s relative emptiness, the region is an intricate web of industry, military investment, untouched environments and resource politics. The Norilsk oil spill illustrates the necessity of sound Arctic policy and organization – and what happens when it fails.

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