© Severny Gorod / Reuters TV via Reuters
Norilsk Nickel must be held to account for devastating fuel spill

The Russian government filed a lawsuit last week against Norilsk Nickel due to the company’s refusal to pay a 147 billion rubles (2 billion USD) fine for the environmental damage and cleanup costs following a massive diesel fuel spill that occurred this past spring.

The company refused to pay the amount, claiming it has taken all possible cleanup measures. WWF-Russia is watching to ensure the penalty is imposed, paid and the final amount serves as a warning to Norilsk Nickel and other companies who operate in the Arctic. WWF-Russia is also calling on Norilsk Nickel to take further preventive measures, and publicly declare how it plans to handle any future accidents.

The spill occurred on May 29, when an aging reservoir at one of the company’s facilities collapsed and leaked over 15,000 tons of diesel fuel in the surrounding area, most of the spill reached a nearby river system.

Norilsk Nickel initially attempted to cover up the diesel fuel leak, but the extent of the spill was quickly visible via satellite images, prompting a nearby rivers to change color. WWF-Russia immediately helped activate emergency services at the federal level and monitored the evolution of the spill.The Russian government declared a state of federal emergency and deployed extensive clean-up teams and machinery to limit further spread of the spill.

After the spill WWF-Russia sent multiple appeals to Norilsk Nickel, calling for action to avoid future spills, improvements its environmental management and greater transparency. The company responded on August 3, by outlining a range of measures, but a comprehensive plan for cleaning up future oil spills is still missing.

In the months following the spill, more damage has been done to the surrounding area because of the accidental breakdown of a pipeline and deliberate discharge of wastewater from a tailing pond (where waste is stored). This spring’s spill, in combination with decades of historic water pollution from Norilsk Nickel facilities caused a serious degradation of the river and Lake Pyasino ecosystem. It will take at least another decade to restore the damage.

© Contains modified Copernicus Sentinel data 2020 / CC BY 4.0

Satellite Images

In addition, Norilsk Nickel prevented the collection of samples and analysis from nearby Lake Pyasino which has received significant amounts of pollution. When WWF-Russia conducted an analysis of satellite images from 2017 and 2020 they found something truly alarming – Norilsk Nickel discharges waste into Arctic rivers on a regular basis.

As a result of the spill, WWF-Russia has begun discussions with federal and regional governments, and other stakeholders to phase out the use of diesel fuels in the Russian Arctic and replace them with cleaner alternatives. WWF-Russia is also working with other Russian environmental NGOs to support the establishment of long-term public monitoring in the area.

International scrutiny by shareholders, customers, civil society and the Arctic Council is important – particularly as next spring, Russia will assume chairmanship of the Arctic Council. For instance, the incident was raised at the Arctic Council’s recent meeting of the Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response working group.

As one of the top five mining companies in the world, Norilsk Nickel must accept full accountability for this devastating spill. If the company fails to do so it should not be allowed to continue operating in the Arctic’s vulnerable ecosystem. WWF-Russia will continue to keep an eye on this Arctic mining giant for further remediation, penalization and its future environmental performance.