Massive Fuel Spill in Siberia Blamed on Melting Permafrost – or Climate Change

By Yuliya Fedorinova | June 4, 2020

A massive fuel spill in Siberia prompted Russia to declare a state of emergency in the region as the mining company involved said the catastrophe may have been caused by climate change.

Scientists have warned for years that thawing of once permanently frozen ground covering more than half of Russia is threatening the stability of buildings and pipelines. Greenpeace said last week’s accident was the largest ever in the Arctic region, and likened it to the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989.

The cause of the spill, in which 20,000 tons of diesel leaked from a reservoir owned by MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, hasn’t been determined but the company has suggested it could be the result of damage from melting permafrost. The rate of warming in the Arctic is twice as fast as the rest of the world.

“The cause is yet to be determined and is likely a combination of both climate change and infrastructure-related factors,” said Dmitry Streletskiy, a professor at George Washington University.

The fuel spill in Norilsk is polluting land and rivers that drain into a lake linked to the Kara Sea. The lake that links to the Kara Sea has already been affected, Kommersant newspaper reported, citing a spokesman at the Federal Agency for Fishing.

As a precautionary measure, Nornickel is pumping fuel from another nearby reservoir where slight cracks were discovered after the company began an investigation of the accident, said Nornickel First Vice President Sergey Dyachenko. The spill came at a reservoir that was last checked in 2018 in line with regulations, according to Nornickel’s press service.

“Given the issues linked to permafrost, the checks of such reservoirs should be done more often,” said Vladimir Chuprov, project director at Greenpeace in Russia. “The area won’t be able to recover from the accident soon as it is already not possible to fully collect the fuel after such time.”

The company called in a specialist clean-up team from Murmansk, which is pumping out the fuel. The team has so far collected 338 tons of diesel fuel and removed 1,450 cubic meters of soil, Nornickel’s press service said.

Putin Criticism

President Vladimir Putin approved a state of emergency Wednesday, about five days after the spill. Emergency Situation Minister Yevgeny Zinichev flew to the area today, after talks with Putin and representatives of Nornickel. He said the state of emergency will allow federal resources to be deployed.

Putin criticized the handling of the accident after Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Uss said he only learned about the scale of the incident from social media two days after it occurred. Nornickel said the authorities were informed about the accident immediately.

It’s a potentially sensitive issue for Putin, who has been largely indifferent to climate change in the past. The president only decided to ratify the 2015 Paris climate accord this year, after previously challenging the widely held assertion that global warming is due almost exclusively to human activity.

Nornickel’s shares fell 8.7% in Moscow trading.

United Co. Rusal, which owns 28% of Nornickel, has called for an unscheduled board meeting to discuss the spill. Vladimir Potanin, Nornickel’s biggest shareholder and chief executive officer, has yet to make a statement.

Photograph: A view of tundra, lakes and rivers amid smoke and pipes from the Norilsk Metallurgical Plant on the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia.

Topics Energy Russia Oil Gas Climate Change

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