How Norilsk, in the Russian Arctic, became one of the most polluted places on Earth

A smelting company has poisoned rivers, killed off forests and belched out more sulfur dioxide than active volcanoes. Now it wants to produce more metal for the “green economy.”

Built as a resource colony by prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, Norilsk outlasted communism, embraced capitalism, and it now aims to ramp up production to sell the metals needed for electric vehicle batteries and the clean energy economy. Norilsk Nickel is the world’s leading producer of the high-purity Class 1 nickel that electric vehicle industry leaders like Tesla CEO Elon Musk are seeking. The company’s ambitions coincide with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin for greater development in the Far North, which he maintains can be accomplished sustainably. 

But Norilsk Nickel has undermined its own vision for the future by spoiling a priceless environment, with implications for the entire planet. The company’s pollution has carved a barren landscape of dead and dying trees out of the taiga, or boreal forest, one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. Its wastewater has turned glacial rivers red. Its smokestacks belch out the worst sulfur dioxide pollution in the world. And last year, a corroded tank burst and released 6.5 million gallons of diesel fuel into waters that flow to the Kara Sea. It was the largest oil spill in Arctic history. Although Norilsk Nickel maintains that no diesel fuel made it to the Arctic Ocean, the Russian government’s fisheries science agency told Inside Climate News that its testing showed that the contamination had reached that far.

Valeriya «Lera» Bolgova, a leader of the Nganasan people, one of five Indigenous tribes of the Taimyr peninsula, at a local festival in October 2021. The region’s first people have been unique witnesses to Norilsk Nickel’s indelible imprint on the environment, because fish and reindeer meat are still central to their diets.Courtesy Valeriya Bolgova

The story of Norilsk’s pollution is written in the trees: 5.9 million acres of dead and dying boreal forest downwind from the Norilsk Nickel compound — a scar larger than New Jersey, slashed into the largest forested region on Earth. 

In tree ring samples, scientists have pinpointed the great rush of sulfur dioxide pollution that began in 1942, when the first nickel smelter geared up to meet the Soviet Union’s need for stainless steel during World War II. And the tree rings have shown how the rate of forest deaths here jumped in the 1960s, from 5 percent annually to 30 percent annually at one research site, said a study that researchers from Siberian Federal University and the University of Cambridge published last year. The discovery at that time of huge new ore reserves gave Norilsk Nickel “a new lease on life,” the company noted in its official history

By the early 1980s, all larch trees within 40 miles east of Norilsk were dead.

Satellite readings show that no other human enterprise — no power plant, no oil field, no other smelter complex — generates as much sulfur dioxide pollution as Norilsk Nickel. In fact, the only entities on Earth that rival its sulfur emissions are erupting volcanoes, according to a monitoring project led by scientists at NASA and Environment Canada. At 1.9 million tons of sulfur dioxide emissions annually, Norilsk produces as much sulfur pollution as the entire U.S. — all concentrated in a city the size of Eugene, Oregon.

“You cannot breathe there,” Valeriya “Lera” Bolgova, a leader of the Nganasan people, one of five Indigenous tribes of the Taimyr peninsula, said in an interview. The region’s first people have been unique witnesses to Norilsk Nickel’s indelible imprint on the environment, because fish and reindeer meat are still central to their diets.

 “When the pollution proceeds, and proceeds as intensively as it is nowadays, both the fish and the animals start looking for a cleaner environment,” Bolgova said. 

Researchers from Siberian Federal University affirmed that the reindeer patterns havedramatically changed on Taimyr. They found the average stay of the reindeer at their traditional summer calving and feeding place to be just 63 days, a third of what it was in the 1960s.

As for human health, lung cancer mortality is 1.2 to 2.5 times higher in Norilsk than in other Russian cities, and deaths from cardiovascular disease and infectious diseases also are elevated, according to the latest research.

Russian scientists determined that diesel fuel from the spill did reach Pyasino Lake and beyond. Contamination was found in bottom sediment in the lake and the entire 900-kilometer length of the adjoining Pyasino River, including at its mouth in the Arctic Ocean’s Kara Sea, said Vyacheslav Bizikov, the deputy director of the Russian government’s All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography in Moscow, in an interview with Inside Climate News.

Bizikov led the expedition of scientists, who lived on boats for 17 days sampling water, sediment and fish. The researchers found both diesel fuel and heavy metal contamination in the liver and muscles of fish they tested, and they warned local authorities and Indigenous communities that the fish weren’t safe to eat, he said.

The findings became the basis of the lawsuit the Russian fisheries agency filed against Norilsk Nickel in July. The company and the agency are working out an agreement on how to further study the damage, restore the environment and replenish the fish, Bizikov said. 

“We can restore and recover the ecosystems and water ecosystems if we do it right,” Bizikov said. “As I see it, it’s not a matter of one day or one year. If there will be no more accidents, we will manage to fix it. It’s difficult to say when, but in 10 years, maybe we will see the definite results.”

New pressures for change are building on Norilsk Nickel from the outside. 

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