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  • Writer's pictureSuvarna Satish

World’s Largest Arctic Oil Spill - Mining Company, Nornickel, Fined €1.6 Billion in Damages

Oil spill background

The spill occurred in the city of Norilsk, Russia, at a power plant operated by Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Co., a subsidiary of Nornickel. Norilsk Nickel, better known as Nornickel, is a Russian nickel and palladium mining and smelting company. The site of spill is located above the Arctic Circle in Russia’s far North.

[Map showing the site of the oil spill]

The power plant is reportedly built on permafrost. Permafrost is the term given to any ground that remains frozen for at least two years. The increase in temperature due to global warming challenges the stability of permafrost. Thawing soil is weaker and renders structures built on such grounds unstable. Reports suggest that the permafrost weakened over years due to climate change, thus sinking the pillars that supported the fuel tank that held 21,000 tonnes of diesel oil to leak. The leak began on 29th May 2020.

In Russia, diesel is dyed red if it’s used for heating of buildings and structures. Red diesel is usually pumped into special storage tanks and subsequently consumed as an energy source. The leaking diesel extended as far as 7 miles from the accident site and much of it spilled into the Ambarnaya river, turning long stretches of the river crimson red in colour. A more alarming issue of this spill is that the river is shallow and flows into the environmentally sensitive Arctic Ocean. The Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill, before the alerting ministry was alerted.

[Stretches of crimson red Ambarnaya river captured from Space]

Russia declares a state of emergency / Arctic Emergency

On 3rd June 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a state of emergency in the Arctic city of Norilsk to tackle the massive spill. At a televised government meeting to discuss the spill, Putin expressed shock upon find out that local authorities had only learned of the incident from social media two days after it happened and reprimanded the region’s governor on air.

The state environment regulator said 15,000 tonnes of oil products had seeped into the river system with another 6,000 into the subsoil. The state fisheries agency believes the river will need decades to recover.

Putin said he supported a proposal to declare a national state of emergency in the area as it would help the clean-up. The company says it is doing all it can to clear up the spill and it has brought in specialists from Moscow who have sectioned off the affected part of the river to stop the oil products spreading further. Following Putin’s order, Russia’s Investigative Committee launched three probes into environmental pollution and violation of safety rules.

Race to clean up oil spill

Strong winds caused the oil to spread more than 12 miles from the source, contaminating nearby rivers, lakes and the surrounding soil. This hampered efforts to contain the spread and clean up the spill.

The Ambarnaya River, which is the worst-affected by the spill, feeds into Lake Pyasino, a major body of water and the source of the Pyasina River that is vitally important to the entire Taimyr peninsula. Russia’s marine rescue service placed six containment booms in the river to prevent spill run off into the lake and made efforts to skim off the fuel using special devices. However, the clean-up efforts were hampered by the lack of road in the area and chilly weather that had caused blocks of ice to breach the barriers, releasing more fuel towards the lake.

[Russia’s marine rescue service workers in action]

“It’s swampy territory, and everything can only be delivered there on all-terrain vehicles,” Andrei Malov, spokesman for Russia’s Marine Rescue Service, said, predicting that the collected fuel will have to stay on site until the winter in special tanks. The difficult terrain prompted some officials to suggest the fuel should be burned off at the scene, but Russia’s environmental watchdog chief Svetlana Radionova on Thursday ruled this out, citing environmental concerns.

Aleksey Kniznikov, Oil and Gas Programme leader at WWF Russia, believes that just around a third of the leaked fuel can be cleaned up. “We are dealing with a spill of diesel fuel, and this type of oil product evaporates quite quickly. In just two weeks, everything that is not removed from the water will go into the air,” he explained.

[Booms stopping oil migration on the Ambarnaya river]

Environmental impact of the spill

The spill will severely harm the aquatic species present in the water bodies, apart from a probable fire hazard which will result in air pollution. The amount of toxic chemicals emitted from the oil will get oxidised in the troposphere, thus posing serious risks to humans and animals that will inhale this air.

Shallow waters are the most sensitive to oil spills, and these areas are important to organisms of all levels of the Arctic food chain. The oil spill will likely disturb the Arctic food chain for decades, perhaps forever. Oil spills in ice are more complicated to address than oil spills in open waters. Especially in the marginal ice zone, in polynyas, during the high production period, the impacts of oil on these highly sensitive shallow waters could hurt the prospects of survival of the organisms of all levels of the Arctic food chain.

It is highly unlikely that time will heal the extent of damage. Due to near-zero temperatures at the Arctic, the slow rate of biological degradation of oil means that oil spills in the Arctic Ocean might remain there for periods of 50 years or more, feel marine biologists.

Diesel spill versus other oil spills

Diesel contains between 2,000 and 4,000 types of hydrocarbon (the naturally occurring building blocks of fossil fuels), which break down differently in the environment. Typically, 50% or more can evaporate within hours and days, harming the environment and causing respiratory problems for people nearby.

Other, more resistant chemicals can bind with algae and microorganisms in the water and sink, creating a toxic sludge on the bed of the river or lake. This gives the impression that the contamination has been removed and is no longer a threat. However, this sludge can persist for months or years.

Major oil spills such as that of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 or Deepwater Horizon in 2010 typically involve thick, gloopy crude oil that sits on the surface of seawater. For these sorts of spills, clean-up best practice is well known. However, the Norilsk spill involved thinner, less gloopy diesel oil in freshwater, making clean-up more difficult.

Aftermath of the oil spill

As of July 6 2020, Nornickel said it had removed 185,000 tonnes of contaminated soil. The soil is being stored on site to be “cleaned” by certified contaminant experts by early September. The “cleaned” soil will then likely be returned to its original site. Also, 13 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of fuel-contaminated water has been pumped from the river to a nearby industrial site where harmful chemicals will be separated and the “clean” water will likely by returned to the river.

In February 2021, A court ruled that Nornickel should pay 146 billion roubles (€1.6 billion) for damages to the Arctic as a result of the catastrophic oil spill. However, the company has disputed the compensation figure, contesting that the damages caused were calculated at 21 billion roubles (€234 million).

The levied fine will amount to 98.5% of the company’s total profits last year and Nornickel sought an 85 per cent reduction in the compensation required, which the Krasnoyarsk Arbitration Court has now dismissed. Criminal proceedings were launched by Russian Investigative Committee over the pollution, citing negligence as there was an alleged two-day delay in telling government bodies the spill had happened.

Looming threat of oil spills in the future

The spring of 2020 saw Siberia experience temperatures 10°C warmer than average and, with permafrost underlying most of Russia, the region is highly vulnerable to climate warming. Indeed, 45% of oil and gas extraction fields in the Russian Arctic are at risk of infrastructure instability due to thawing permafrost.

Without more stringent regulations to improve existing infrastructure then more spills are likely to occur, especially given how rapidly permafrost is melting in these areas causing unstable ground.

While nature and her oil-degrading microbial communities can help clean up our mess, we should avoid relying on a largely invisible force that we don’t fully understand to fix a much larger human-generated problem. Owing to frequent man-made disaster in the recent times, it is nearly impossible for an environment on the edge of destruction to be fully able to recover.

Oil and gas leaks have become alarmingly frequent due to negligence in storage and transport. This poses serious threat to the environment, and thus storage tanks and pipelines require constant monitoring. SuperVision Earth’s primary focus lies in real time monitoring of pipelines to prevent accidents. The use of automated satellite-based monitoring system and remote sensing can track pipelines that are even buried deep in the soil, thus saving the environment from potential severe damages.



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