Last month, Russia suffered one of the worst environmental disasters in its history when an oil spill at the Nornickel plant spewed thousands of tonnes of oil into land and water in Taimyr, Siberia, turning the Ambarnaya River red. It is possibly second in scale only to the 1994 Komi pipeline spill, which was by some estimates over eight times bigger in volume than the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.

oil spill at the Nornickel plant spewed thousands of tonnes of oil into land and water in Taimyr, Siberia, turning the Ambarnaya River red
© Anonymous / Greenpeace

As Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency, a flurry of ecologists, journalists and officials scrambled to the area. But the public interest is always brief.

The Komi Republic in north-west Russia suffers almost constant, smaller-scale oil spills, the likes of which amount to more than two Deepwater Horizons across the country every year. The people both of Komi and of the Siberian Taimyr region share a particular misfortune of being remote enough that the disasters taking place in their homelands escape attention.

And, as with so many environmental and human wrongs, the damage lands heaviest on minority groups. Imagine: one day, all the shops and amenities just close. What now? The nearest store is several hundred kilometers away and the land and water are overwhelmed with oil. How do you eat?

At a time when towns like Khatanga, a short distance down the road, have experienced record-shattering heatwaves, exacerbated by the warming of Earth brought about by fossil fuel burning, Greenpeace Russia spoke with the Chair of the Association of Indigenous Minorities of the Taimyr Krasnoyarsk Territory, Grigory Dyukarev.

Greenpeace Russia: What is the situation at the scene?

Grigory: I was not at the scene of the accident. Apparently, the government is making a serious effort to eliminate the consequences. But the problem is that not all diesel can be removed, so water resources will be catastrophically affected.

This accident is devastating to our economy. The river is spawning, and our people go fishing there. In general, the river feeds us. It is… like a supermarket for you. In the city you can go to the store, but we live in a tundra. And if the river is polluted: there will be no more fish for us.

But we will lose not only fish: a wild deer is likely to change migration routes, so we will have to travel hundreds of kilometres for hunting.

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.

Living off the land and water in the Taymyr Peninsula © Petr Shelomvskiy / Greenpeace
Living off the land and water in the Taymyr Peninsula. © Petr Shelomvskiy / Greenpeace

Greenpeace Russia: Taimyr has long been considered an ecologically unfavourable region. Have there been similar accidents before?

Grigory: We never had such global spills, but there were emissions into the atmosphere from local plants. Nornickel is already historically one of the main polluters. It’s impossible to stay in the city (Norilsk) now for a long time — I don’t even know how the citizens of Norilsk feel.

Earlier in Soviet times, we could tolerate it, because then Nornickel helped with house building; relocated people from contaminated and industrial areas – they had a social responsibility. Today it is a private company with private interests.

Here is an example for you: last year they finally decided to build a new settlement, Tukhard, within the framework of the signed memorandum between the governor of the region and the general director of Norilsk Nickel. The old village is located next to the methanol warehouse – in fact, people lived in the plant area. And what is the result? They abandoned the construction: they built houses, a number of infrastructure facilities, but did not connect them to either heating or electricity. As a result, these houses still stand empty, and due to condensation they became unusable.

We can safely say that they are simply irresponsible both from the environmental side and the social side.

Greenpeace Russia: Do you get help from local authorities?

Grigory: So far, we have not received any proposals from the administration. Now we have prepared a letter to the President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin. We work within the laws currently in force in Russia – this is the law that guarantees the rights of Indigenous People. We propose the adoption of a support program after this disaster. Everything will take time to be restored. It will take years, I think – at least ten.

We believe the programme should include mandatory environmental monitoring with the participation of indigenous people, the restoration of aquatic biological resources affected by the accident and the payment of damage. And we are absolutely sure, Russia must tighten environmental legislation, especially in fragile ecosystems like the Arctic.

Working with reindeer © Petr Shelomvskiy / Greenpeace
Working with reindeer. © Petr Shelomvskiy / Greenpeace.

Greenpeace Russia: Do you feel the effects of climate change in Taymyr?

Grigory: We have been observing climate change for a long time. Winters have become warmer. The temperature in the reservoirs, including in the Yenisey, have increased. This temperature regime of water is uncomfortable for fish – it goes in depth, the migration paths change. There are fewer fish in the river now. There are a number of uncommon insects appearing in our region – for example, grasshoppers. Moreover, there are more bears, they come to the north.

But the saddest thing for us is the thawing of the soil: we have houses on stilts and it is not clear how nature will behave further.

Olesya Vikulova is the Media Coordinator at Greenpeace Russia

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