Environmental stories out of Russia have been in the news lately. First, there was one of the largest diesel spills in the Russian Arctic’s history. Then, there is the shocking heating of the Arctic which can be directly connected to climate change, which is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, like diesel. Now — once again, as is happening with increasing fury every year — there are wildfires raging across Siberia, another effect of climate change.
Well, here’s a story that ties all these things together:
Last weekend Elena Sakirko and Josef Kogotko, who work with Greenpeace Russia, and Novaya Gazeta journalists, Elena Kostuchenko and Yuriy Kozyrev, collected scientific samples that could show the effects of the diesel spills on the surrounding delicate ecology as well as answer the question as to whether diesel leaking in the Pyasina river will reach the Arctic Ocean.
However, these samples were taken by the Russian authorities at Norilsk airport before they could be independently tested. A Moscow City Parliament Deputy tried to get them to a laboratory, but the Security Service of Norilsk Airport, which belongs to Norilsk Nickel — the company dumping waste into the Pyasina — would not allow it. Greenpeace eventually got the samples back, but they still remain in Norilsk.
All this squirrely behaviour makes Vladimir Chuprov, the Project Director at Greenpeace Russia, wonder why it is that ‘Nornickel’ is claiming to have cleaned up 90% of the spill and at the same time getting in the way of allowing the water to be tested?
“In our experience, only up to 10% of the leaked oil products in a spill of such scale can be cleaned up. Independent data can help to cope with the consequences of the catastrophe, but hiding information only leads to total mistrust of the official information,” said Chouprov.
And the plot thickens. It turns out that the diesel spill is not the only threat to lake Pyasino, which is connected to the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean. Another Norilsk Nickel plant, the Talnakh enrichment factory (TEF), was also dumping waste water, presumably containing heavy metals and surfactants, into the local rivers.
Journalists and Greenpeace Russia personnel immediately reported this to the regional police and state environment control inspectors, who gave no comment, except admitting that samples had to be analysed in a laboratory. Either way, the dumping was stopped and the drainpipe was immediately dismantled.
Again Greenpeace sampled the waste waters, and again the samples were not allowed to leave Norilsk. This time Norilsk airport security seemed to invent confusing bureaucratic steps which involved getting special permissions from certain other agencies — agencies who were totally surprised to be asked about the permissions.
This is what happens when a company like Norilsk Nickel is the supreme authority of all it surveys — they control the manufacturing plants, industrial facilities and the city airport where the security officers openly admit that they follow the orders of the company.
A month after the first catastrophic petroleum product spill in local rivers, access to the affected area is still restricted. Independent attempts to get data on oil pollution from the area are blocked. Even journalists with ‘access’ to the region face restrictions from local security services. Norilsk Nickel and/or the local authorities are trying to control the information that leaves the region which may hide the real scale of the disaster.
The two disclosed cases of the toxic contamination are by far not unique in the area. Satellite images show that many rivers around Norilsk are all sorts of unnatural colours — from grey and green to beige and red. And all this polluted water could be flowing into the Arctic ocean killing the wildlife and devastating the natural environments for decades to come.
Instead of investing in the recovery and recultivation of these lands, Norilsk Nickel is investing in blocking information that can show how recklessly it exploits natural resources and how irresponsibly it treats the people who live there and work for this very industry.
If we are going to be able to confront climate change, which exacerbates the Siberian wildfires and spikes the temperature in the Russian Arctic, we must be led by verifiable science and facts. Greenpeace believes that all the information about this spill, and all other cases, should be made public and the industry’s activities should be made transparent if we want to avoid these disasters and climate breakdown.
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Andrey Allakhverdov is a media coordinator with Greenpeace Russia