In Siberia, where rivers once stayed frozen solid through winter, the Ambarnaya River outside Norilsk is running red. One of the largest fuel spills to ever take place in the Arctic has spewed 20,000 tons of diesel into its waters. These “rivers of fuel” may soon reach the Arctic Ocean.

A few weeks ago, the river flowing north of the Russian mining city of Norilsk began running red, just as it had four years prior. While that incident was due to a break in a slurry pipe, the disaster this time was far more devastating.

On May 29, the supports under a fuel storage tank at a power plant outside Norilsk at the Nadezhda Metallurgical Complex gave way, spewing over 20,000 tons (150,000 barrels, or about a quarter of the oil that Alaska produces each day) into the surrounding river system. It took two days for the operator, Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), to inform the government of the accident. Three days later, realizing the leak’s extent, a livid President Putin declared a federal emergency. A criminal case has been opened against the mayor of Norilsk by Russia’s Investigative Committee, while the head of the power plant has been thrown in jail.

It has alarmingly become clear that spill is one of the largest ever to occur in the Arctic. It’s comparable to the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989, when the oil tanker ran aground off Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled 37,000 tons of oil into the surrounding waters.

During an interview with Yenisey TV, Alexander Uss, governor of Krasnoyarsk, the region in which Norilsk lies, described witnessing “rivers of fuel.” Within recent memory, those rivers would have remained frozen solid through long winters. But last year’s spring was the warmest since records began in 1936. This year, the rivers began to break-up abnormally early, too. Yesterday, 21 June, the northernmost 100°F (38°C) temperature reading ever was observed in Verkohyansk, in northeast Siberia. Shorter winters mean less time for the ground to refreeze, with severe consequences for the infrastructure lying on top of it.

At the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, part of the vast infrastructure that makes Norilsk the world’s biggest producer of nickel and palladium, the blame for the fuel tank’s catastrophic failure has been placed on permafrost thaw, which fatally weakened the tank’s supports. The structure was built in 1985, a time when climate change was little acknowledged. It appears that the ground may have subsided to a degree that it was no longer able to support the tank, allowing rust-colored diesel it held to flood into the nearby Daldykan River, which flows into the Ambarnaya River. From there, the effluent moved 20 km north, allegedly spilling into a large Siberian lake.

“The fuel got into Lake Pyasino,” admitted Uss, Krasnoyarsk’s governor.

The 735 km² freshwater body is the source of the Pyasina River, which is the lifeblood of the Taimyr Peninsula. The vast tundra is home to Indigenous Peoples like the Nenets, Dolgan, and Evenki, their reindeer herds, and species like muskox, walrus, and polar bears. With over half a million furry critters, the Taimyr reindeer herd is the world’s largest. The ungulates calve along the east bank of the river, though in an area far from the scene of the disaster.

Governor Uss said of the lake, “It’s impossible to predict how it will bear this load. It’s important now to keep it from reaching the Pyasina River, which goes further north.” Further north, in other words, is the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean, where many environmentalists fear the leaked oil will end up.

Nornickel denies that the oil slick had reached the lake. But with the oil having reportedly breached the 18 booms set up along the Ambarnaya River to try to contain its spread, the oil likely has nowhere to go but north.

A toxic tundra

Lake Pyasino and the surrounding landscape have been described in media reports as “pristine,” but decades of mining and smelting have actually made the area around Norilsk one of the most polluted places on Earth. The fuel spill represents a calamitous addition to a long history of environmental degradation, which will exert a toll on Indigenous health and well-being.

As I wrote in a 2015 blog post on Norilsk, NASA claims that heavy metal pollution around the city “is so severe that it is now economically feasible to mine the soil.” Around the lake’s southern shores, scientists have hauntingly described, “One finds only dead trees, severely damaged shrubs (desiccation 60%), small bushes (75%), and sedges and grasses (50%).” Mushrooms and berries, which naturally accumulate toxins, contain heavy metal salts 8-25 times the permissible amount.

The Daldykan and Ambarnaya Rivers outside Norilsk, Russia, pictured in 2012. It is apparent that the rivers were severely polluted even before the accident in May 2020. Image: Yandex

In Lake Pyasino itself, a study published in 2011 found high concentrations of copper, zinc, and cadmium. A more recent study from 2019 contended that heavy metals in the lake “exceed the maximum permissible levels by tens and hundreds of times.” The liver of burbot, a freshwater fish that lives in the lake and which is commonly eaten in Russia, contain levels of heavy metals high enough to deem them unhealthy for human consumption. This represents a troubling finding given that the organ is considered a delicacy (and, normally, is chock-full of vitamins).

Lastly and rather freakishly, the genomes of both wild and domestic reindeer exhibit greater destabilization the closer they live to Norilsk. This is worrisome, especially since in the wake of the disaster, Nornickel has committed to a progam of biodiversity conservation “to increase reindeer population in the area.” (This commitment is listed in a PDF presentation from June 9 since removed from Nornickel’s website, but still cached by Google). Efforts to expand reproduction of genetically unfit reindeer could negatively impact the herd’s future health, and potentially that of the Indigenous Nenets and Evenki who rely on them.

The vice president of RAIPON (Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North), an Arctic Council Permanent Participant, sought to alleviate concerns about the Norilsk fuel spill’s impacts on Indigenous livelihoods. “This is actually an industrial zone. There is no harm to domestic reindeer herding. There are no wild deers and no reindeer herders’ pastures,” remarked Arthur Gayulsky to Russian news agency TASS.

Skeptics, however, might view his reassurance as a cover to protect his own interests. The Russian government effectively installed its own leadership within RAIPON in 2013, so the association’s ability to speak out for Indigenous interests that might run counter to the state is questionable. RAIPON’s vice president, Gayulsky, is a member of the Evenk elite and has multiple business projects in the Evenkiyskiy District in Krasnoyarsk. According to a 2017 research paper, his family “currently control the flows of government and charitable financial support for Krasnoyarsk Krai’s Indigenous Peoples and are involved in every big project connected with distributing financial assets in today’s Evenkia, whether it be construction, agriculture, energy, commerce or otherwise.” Downplaying the spill’s consequences might therefore be in his favor.

Gennady Shchukin, secretary of the Russian Aborigen Forum, which was established as an alternative organization to represent Indigenous interests after the forced change in leadership at RAIPON, strongly disagrees with Gayulsky. The Dolgan activist warned, “The diesel fuel lies in the water like a cellophane. It will settle to the bottom after a while. All river flora will die. A fish will die and a bird. If the deer calf crosses the river, he will die because of breathing the fumes. People who live downstream will have nothing to eat.”

Satellite imagery of the leaked oil in the Ambarnaya River. Data source: Sentinel-2

Nornickel calculates that cleaning up the spill will cost 10 billion rubles ($146 million). More extreme estimates suggest that it will require ten times as much money and at least a decade to restore the environment. Last Friday, Putin warned:

“Russia has not yet had experience of clearing up such vast pollution from bodies of water as far as I understand.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, 19 June 2020

Whether in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, either sum merely represents a drop in the bucket for the mining conglomerate. The FT reports that the company has more than $5 billion of cash on hand and $2 billion in undrawn facilities.

That money has come largely from soaring demand in recent years for palladium, which is used in catalytic converters that reduce emissions from gas-guzzling vehicles. A shift away from diesel to gasoline and the use of palladium in hybrid-electric vehicles has helped the price of futures of the silvery metal skyrocket 400% between 2000 and today. Nornickel’s share price has mirrored the metal’s upward trajectory, quintupling since the early 2000s. While the company may therefore be able to absorb the clean-up costs, as the FT article argues, the tundra will not emerge so unscathed.

Price data from Yahoo Finance.

Not-so-permanent permafrost

The Norilsk disaster exemplifies the threat climate change poses to Arctic infrastructure. Already across the Russian North, cities are sinking like “slow motion wrecks” into the swampy ground. Russia faces more severe warming than many other places in the Arctic, as illustrated in the below map of predicted temperature change by 2040-2059 based on a “business as usual” scenario in which society fails to curb its greenhouse gas emissions.

Russia is also especially vulnerable because its northern regions are more developed than many other parts of the Arctic thanks to Soviet campaigns to industrialize the region, which Putin has reinvigorated. A study published in Nature determined that nearly half of all oil and gas fields in the Russian Arctic lie in areas with significant potential for thawing and subsidence.

The Russian government continues to develop new sites of natural resource extraction in the Arctic, especially on the Yamal Peninsula, where permafrost thaw is causing giant sinkholes to open and releasing long-frozen anthrax spores into the air with deadly results. There is thus good reason to worry about whether infrastructure is being adequately maintained, let alone reinforced to withstand a warmer, wetter Earth.

Map of mines, oil and gas fields, and permafrost in Russia. Data sources: USGS, PRIO, and NSIDC.

Despite these risks, Nornickel appears to have ignored basic maintenance. In 2016, heavy rains caused a filtration dam at the Nadezhda power plant, the very same one where the tank ruptured last month, to overflow into the Daldykan river, the very same one that ran red just a few weeks ago. Count this as a lesson not learned, with terrible effects.

Instead of investing in existing infrastructure, let alone adapting it to withstand climate change, Nornickel appears focused on acquiring newfangled infrastructure to connect Russia to markets in Europe and Asia rather than shoring up existing investments. Between 2006 and 2009, the company purchased six custom-built reinforced ice-class vessels to enable year-round transportation between Dudinka, the port nearest the mine, and European ports such as Rotterdam.

In a June 15 article in the Financial Times, Evgeny Shvartz, former head of conservation policy at WWF Russia and a member of Nornickel’s board of directors, observed, “What Norilsk did is a…version of what all Russian companies with old Soviet assets want…They don’t want to invest in modernization, they try every which way to block even the most reasonable initiatives from the state.”

Even when the government tries to encourage climate change adaptation, companies resist. On public television, Putin admonished Nornickel’s CEO and largest shareholder, Vladimir Potanin. He chided, “If you’d replaced it on time, there wouldn’t have been any environmental damage and the company wouldn’t have to spend so much. Pay as much attention to this as possible inside the company.”

The personal is political, even in the Arctic

Potanin’s public dressing-down by Putin is remarkable. Some might argue that it comes from a desire within the Kremlin to replace Potanin with another Russian oligarch, one who is a close confidant of the president: Oleg Deripaska, once the country’s wealthiest man. The billionaire invested $800 million in infrastructure for the Sochi Olympics and formerly held a controlling stake in Rusal, the world’s second largest aluminum producer.

While Potanin is falling on hard times right now, Deripaska’s feet were also held to the fire last year – albeit by the U.S. rather than Russian government. In April 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department accused him and several other Russian oligarchs and entities of “worldwide malign activity” associated with the Kremlin, placing them under debilitating sanctions. In a sentence begging to be picked apart by political scientists, the Treasury Department’s announcement stressed, “Deripaska has said that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.”

Due to his ownership of Rusal, the sanctions threw global aluminum production and supply chains into disarray. By the end of 2018, he agreed with the U.S. Treasury to reduce his stake in the company to below 50% in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Rusal.

Despite the blow to Deripaska’s porfolio, he may still have his eyes on Nornickel, which netted Potanin nearly $8 billion in 2019 thanks to the company’s fast-rising shares. Rusal already owns 28% of Nornickel after having purchased shares in 2008 from Onexim, a Russian private investment fund. If the company were ever able to take over Nornickel, it could result in the formation of a Russian mining giant that could compete with the world’s largest producers like Glencore and BHP Billiton (the latter was partly responsible for the disastrous collapse of a iron ore tailings dam in Brazil in 2015).

In the meantime, as part-rival, part-owner, Rusal is demanding a stringent investigation into Norilsk’s actions in the wake of the spill and has called for an unscheduled board meeting to “discuss this most serious situation,” according to a press release.

How these power politics and boardroom negotiations play out is anyone’s guess, but what is clear is that the environment and the people who rely on the tundra, its reindeer, and its fish will suffer the most. The oil-soaked land will take years to restore, if it can ever be made right. In some places along the beaches of Prince William Sound, Alaska, more than thirty years after the Exxon Valdez disaster, you can stick your hand into the sand and it will still come out coated in slick black oil.

In the coming years, thawing permafrost and an ever-spongier ground will not only exacerbate the risks of disasters. Warm, wet conditions will challenge clean-ups in the event that they are needed, too. Yevgeniy Zinichev, Minister of Emergency Situations, explained to Putin regarding plans for removing the contaminated soil and fuel: “Since the containers are airtight, they are supposed to collect everything and be stored here until the moment when the winter roads are ready, and then, when it is possible, the equipment will go in and calmly take it to the place of disposal.”

Yet the season for winter roads (also known as ice roads, which crisscross the Arctic in winter, when frozen rivers can handle vehicular traffic) is shortening. This means that not only will bringing in goods be trickier: bringing out toxins, debris, and other contaminants will be harder, too.

“A genocide of the flora and fauna of Taimyr”

The disaster in Norilsk reveals how climate change, mismanagement of the early stages of an industrial disaster, and, ironically, efforts to improve the global environment are together putting an immense burden on the Arctic. The region is out of sight, out of mind for nearly everyone but the region’s two million residents. In Taimyr, the Nenets, Evenki, Dolgan, and other nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who have roamed the tundra with their reindeer, fished in its streams, and relaxed among the birch trees under the midnight sun will be the ones who must live with the consequences of Nornickel’s collapsed tank for decades to come. Meanwhile, the corporation’s executives and shareholders thousands of miles away will reap the profits of activities that have provided palladium to millions of vehicles worldwide, whose drivers, too, are unknowing beneficiaries of the scouring of the Arctic.

For thousands of years, the Taimyr Peninsula’s Indigenous Peoples have protected the lakes and rivers of the region, especially those that provided much-needed protein in winter. As cultural anthropologist Tuula Tuisku observes, “Reindeer herders’ vision of the future extends to several generations, and they want to ensure that future generations will be able to live on the land” (as cited in Forbes 2013: 36). Nornickel’s recent and arguably irreversible actions may be putting that future out of reach.

One silver lining to the emergency in Norilsk may be that while the Arctic remains remote from most people’s consciousness, the internet is making it far easier to see the effects of industrial activities and accidents on the region. Florian Stammler, an Arctic anthropologist at the University of Lapland in Finland, posted a link on his insightful blog, Arctic Anthropology, to a 45-minute YouTube tell-all video by Ryabinin Vasily Viktorovich, deputy head of the Norilsk department of Rosprirodnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources). The exposé, which has been viewed over 109,000 times, is worth watching for Russian speakers (and even non-Russian speakers, too, as there are many photos of the disaster and clean-up effort). A comment on the video offers:

“Vasily Viktorovich, THANKS! for courage and honesty! probably in our country the whole truth has long moved to the Internet. For three days the river of diesel fuel flowed. To Lake Pyasino 15km in a straight line from the tanks. Further 70 km the lake and then the Pyasino river 620 km to the Kara Sea through the whole of Taimyr. What? There? Are you catching now? Now it is spring flooding time – spawning, nesting. This is not a catastrophe; it is a genocide of the flora and fauna of Taimyr.”

Categories: Russia


Norilsk oil spill: “There are rivers of fuel”

  1. Thanks Mia for this insightful post. The maps and imagery are very useful too! The big question for many friends that I have is whether or not the pollution will also reach the Kara Sea. As bad as it is already now, that would be the mega-catastrophe!

    1. Florian, thanks also for your very helpful post, which had lots of useful links. I really hope there is some way they can contain the oil before it reaches the Kara Sea.

      Hope to see you in person sometime in the not-so-distant future!


  2. Mia, Thank you for this usual in-depth, informed analysis — in this case of an event terribly under-reported and misunderstood for both the reality now and forewarning of devastating implication and consequence to come. May I re-post as yet another purposeful and prescient observation on all things Arctic? Are you well? Hong Kong? May we catch up? Thanks Peter

    1. Peter, thanks for reading. Yes, please feel free to repost. I am doing well in Hong Kong. It would be great to catch up! Feel free to send me an email and we can fix a time.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.