Russian Arctic Oil Spill

October 15, 2020 | By Angelina Giordano

Siberia. Norilsk, Russia. The Arctic Ocean, May 29, 2020. While the world faces a global pandemic, the arctic suffers in silence. Its waterways and wildlife are being suffocated. Unstable arctic conditions brought on by thawing permafrost and failing infrastructure resulted in a spill of dirty dangerous diesel which contaminated the Daldykan river, the Ambarnaya river, and the freshwater Lake Pyasino (Hjort et al., 2018). These water ways lead directly to the majestic Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean. Fortunately, the company responsible for the spill, claims that the leak was contained before it could spread into the Kara Sea.

Greenpeace estimates that the clean-up for the Norilsk spill runs upwards of $1.4 billion and that it will take a decade for the contaminated waters to rehabilitate and return to non-acidic levels. Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s Regulator, has estimated higher numbers at $14 million just for soil restoration and a jaw dropping $2.8 billion to clean the suffocating waterways. Not surprisingly, Putanin, the billionaire behind Norilsk Nickel contributed mere pocket-change, $200 million, only 7% of the Russian Regulator’s predicted total.

The Nornickel plant initially tried to contain the spill themselves neglecting to inform government officials. President Vladimir Putin was notified 2 days after the spill by a minister who saw the crisis. The current ‘’soft law’’ monitoring guidelines fail to minimize the risks associated with industrial activity in the arctic, showing a need to increase the legal obligations for companies to comply with safety regulations.

Increasing temperatures have decreased the Arctic permafrost’s ability to support infrastructure, such as, roads, railroads, and pipelines. Various safety violations and improper monitoring of these changing temperatures could be one cause for of the Norilsk fuel spill.

Although the spill attracted international attention, the remote location caused said attention to quickly wane.  Meanwhile, Indigenous groups and ethnic minorities face dire consequences and continued environmental injustice. In urban settings when someone is hungry they can go to the supermarket. Now try to imagine a a situation where all supermarkets close, how would they get food? That is exactly what is happening to the people faced with this diesel spill. Gregory Dyukarev, the Chair of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the Taimyr Krasnoyarsk Territory, explained the severity of the situation in an interview with Greenpeace,. ‘’Norilsk Nickel got off easily. They only lose money; we lose water, land, wildlife, fish resources and the ability to provide our families with minimum income.’’

Unfortunately, this spill is not an isolated incident, the area has a of pollution since the Nornickel smelting facilities began operations. Indigenous peoples in these areas are losing their livelihoods. Improper management of the spill could result in a nasty domino effect. First, the contaminated water will inhibit mosquitos from laying eggs, therefore salmon will have less to eat, finally robbing indigenous people and other animals of a major part of their diet, consequently increasing food insecurity in the already remote region.

Although the city of Norilsk may be far away, there are ways to help, which include signing the Petition.


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About the writer

Angelina Giordano is focused on mitigating the effects of climate change, fighting for environmental justice, and creative writing. She finished her BASc. Environment degree at McGill University and is currently working for the Energy consulting firm GEV Corp., and the law firm Giordano & Associates, Ltd. During her time at McGill she was VP Events of the McGill Energy Association, wrote articles for The McGill Tribune and competed on the McGill Figure Skating Team.