Indigenous groups pay the price for massive arctic oil spill in Russia

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In 2017, the New York Times called Norilsk “Russia’s coldest and most polluted industrial city”. he may not get colder but it is certainly now much more polluted than before.The Arctic city, built on the site of an old gulag, is the site of a massive fuel spill that environmentalists compared to the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

On May 29, an aged fuel tank at the Norilsk Nickel plant lost pressure and released 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel into the Arctic subsurface and the waters of the nearby Ambarnaya River.

“In modern history, this is the largest spill I have ever seen,” said Alexey Knizhnikov, an officer of the World Wildlife Fund in Russia. It is the largest land spill in Russia since 1994.

“The scale of the damage to Arctic waterways is unprecedented,” said Dmitry Kobylkin, Russian Minister for Ecology, in a statement.

The incident is embarrassing for a Russian government that has attempted to pursue an environmental program in some places while aggressively expanding industrial operations in the Arctic.

A satellite image shows the extent of pollution of the Ambarnaya River after the installation of containment dams. (Russian Space Agency Roscosmos / Reuters)

It is also a devastating blow to an already withered landscape and the people who depend on it for their way of life.

“If you look at the country around Norilsk, it’s a real dead zone,” said Rodion Sulyandziga, an indigenous lawyer from Udege and director of the Center for Support to Indigenous Peoples in the North. “It is affected … people’s river, reindeer, lakes [and] sol. »

Historical amount of the “voluntary compensation” requested

The fallout from the spill was rapid. On June 10, Russian state investigators arrested three plant managers. A few days later, the mayor of Norilsk was charged with criminal negligence for his late response.

Even before the arrests, Russian President Vladimir Putin chastised the region’s governor in a live televised speech for learning of the incident just days after the fact, on social media. He also lambasted Norilsk Nickel executives during a widely televised conference call.

“If you had changed [the fuel tank] in time, there would not have been such ecological damage, “he told a quartet of sinister-looking leaders speaking from an estate in Norilsk. Study this as close to the business as possible.

Vladimir Potanin, CEO of Norilsk Nickel and the richest man in Russia, was publicly reprimanded by Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised press conference on June 5. (Maxim Shemetov / Reuters)

Norilsk Nickel is the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. He made his majority shareholder, Vladimir Potanin, the richest man in Russia.

Faced with public disapproval of Putin, Potanin said his company would cover the cleaning costs, which he estimated at nearly $ 200 million.

But the Russian regulator, Rosprirodnadzor, came up with a higher estimate: $ 14 million for soil restoration alone, plus $ 2.8 billion for cleaning waterways.

“It is certainly a huge amount. We have never had such sanctions for other environmental violations, ”said Knizhnikov.

The company is contesting the claim for “voluntary compensation” – which equates to about a third of a year’s profits. There is a precedent, they can succeed.

Tractors and trucks work near the petroleum tanks of the TPP-3 thermal power plant outside Norilsk on June 6, 2020. Putin berated Potanin, CEO of Norilsk Nickel, for failing to replace the old tank at the origin of the spill. (Irina Yarinskaya / AFP / Getty Images)

“Very often companies go to court and, unfortunately, very often, [the] “Said Knizhnikov. It is very likely that this huge amount will not be paid. ”

Kobylkin said the company had “every right” to challenge the fine in court. But for Knizhnikov, it may be in the long-term interest of the business to take a bigger hit.

“If they refuse to pay a lot of money, they will get [an] even worse picture, not only in Russia but globally, “he said.

Spill undermines Russia’s development program

According to experts, one of the reasons why the spill provoked such a severe reaction is its consequence for the image of Russia.

Small spills are a chronic problem in the Russian Arctic, according to Laura Henry, expert in Russia at Bowdoin College – just yesterday Norilsk Nickel reported another, 45 tonnes of aviation fuel, from a pipeline to west of Norilsk. But Henry says, more often than not, they are covered before making the headlines.

The scale of the spill meant that images were spreading on social media before the Russian authorities were even informed, attracting international attention and tainting Russia’s environmental image.

A wandering polar bear is seen on the outskirts of Norilsk on June 17, 2019. Russia is trying to improve its environmental credentials as it prepares to chair the Arctic Council in 2021. (Irina Yarinskaya / newspaper Zapolyarnaya Pravda / AFP / Getty Images)

Vladimir Chuprov, campaign director for Greenpeace Russia, also said that he “personally touched the image of Putin.”

Russia will re-chair the Arctic Council next year and Putin has publicly stressed that the development of the environmentally sustainable Arctic is a key part of his mandate, he said.

The spill also has internal consequences. Putin has suggested that the economic opportunity posed by warming the Arctic means that climate change is “perhaps bad for the world but not so bad for Russia,” said Henry. The spill – originally blamed on the melting of permafrost – undermined this message.

He also highlighted Putin’s complex relationship with oligarchs like Potanin. Henry said many are already complaining that Potanin’s “special relationship” with the Kremlin has allowed Norilsk Nickel to escape scrutiny from the environment, even if he makes public commitments to sustainability.

“Potanin makes an incredible fortune from this venture,” said Henry. That such a lucrative company failed to update such basic infrastructure “is probably frustrating” for Putin, she said.

The other Russian oligarchs could also back away from this setback to the environmental image of their country.

An aerial view shows pollution of a river outside Norilsk on June 6, 2020. (Irina Yarinskaya / AFP / Getty Images)

Bruce Forbes, a researcher at the Arctic Institute at the University of Lapland, who studies the use of indigenous lands in Western Siberia, said that many companies working in the Russian Arctic are actively increasing the number of indigenous consultations and environmental review they were doing.

“They are doing a job like western countries should do if they entered the Arctic [National Wildlife] Refuge, “he said.

“The types of processes that must continue, remarkably, have been underway. But that doesn’t count the spills. “

Indigenous groups pay the price for disaster

For indigenous peoples in the region, this spill can be seen as another indication of “the gap between the claims and the facts,” said Sulyandziga, the native lawyer.

“On the one hand, the Russian constitution guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples but in terms of implementation… it’s poor. It’s nothing, ”he said.

The Dolgans, the Nenets, the Nganasans, the Evenki and the Enets hunt, fish and collect reindeer among the lakes and rivers north of Norilsk. But the earth has long been poisoned by industrial waste.

In 2016, local Aboriginal groups noted with concern that the waters of the nearby Daldykan River had turned blood red, dont Norilsk Nickel suggested was natural. They later recognized that an industrial wastewater spill was responsible.

A Nenets woman walks on a snowy field in northern Russia. The indigenous peoples of the region, notably the Nenets, the Dolgans, the Nganasans, the Evenki and the Enets hunt, fish and collect reindeer among the lakes and rivers north of Norilsk. (Sergei Gapon / AFP / Getty Images)

The waters of this river eventually flow into Pyasino Lake – now so toxic that it is almost entirely devoid of fish. Downstream rivers are crossed by the largest herd of wild reindeer in the world, which has declined by more than 40% since 2000.

“The legacy of the past is very destructive,” said Sulyandziga. “It is still very dangerous to hunt, to eat. ”

Sulyandziga said that once the extent of the environmental damage is clear, work should start on a “work plan for indigenous peoples… [to address] access to traditional food, access to traditional activity. ”

But the power of indigenous peoples to defend their interests is weakening. Government crackdowns on foreign-funded NGOs led the own Indigenous Support Center in northern Sulyandziga to be seen as a “foreign agent” and liquidated by the courts last year.

Indigenous activism, as a form of ethnic activism, can be interpreted as separatism, said Sulyandziga.

“We have to be very careful. ”

But in light of this latest spill, he said, advocacy with indigenous people is even more important.

“I believe that nature is already avoiding us because something is wrong,” he said. “Indigenous peoples should continue to fight, not only for our cultural heritage but also for our natural heritage. “

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