Following a recent, massive, 21,000-tonne oil spill in the industrial Russian city of Norilsk, the whole nation has been placed into a state of national emergency. On May 29, 2020, a diesel fuel tank operated by Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Co. (parent company Norilsk) was damaged, resulting in the release of the fuel in what Greenpeace Russia is calling “the first accident of such a large scale in the Arctic.” Prosecutors claim that roughly 180,000 square meters of land were polluted before the oil reached water; with no real choice at all, President Vladimir Putin declared the nation in a state of energy amid the disaster, and he angrily criticized the delay in cleanup efforts. Indeed, efficient cleanup is necessary due to numerous health hazards — as the spokesman for Russia’s Marine Rescue Service Andrei Malov explains, “There haven’t been such spills in the Arctic before. It needs to be collected very quickly because the fuel is [already] dissolving in the water.” Russian fisheries agency spokesman Dmitry Klokov corroborated this, stating that recovery from the oil spill would take decades: “The scope of this catastrophe is being underestimated” — he added that the fuel was rapidly sinking to the bottom of lakes. However, Norilsk is by no means entirely the victim of this accident: as WWF extractive industry leader Alexei Knizhnikov revealed, companies are required to have protective structures around fuel sites in order to prevent massive spoils; however, this was not the case with the industrial giant. As Knizhnikov stated, “A lot of the blame lies with the company.”
What exactly caused the spill, and what are the impacts?
The oil spill may appear to simply be a combination of an unfortunate accident and corporate carelessness. However, deeper observation shows otherwise. Norilsk itself along with Russian officials concluded that the spill was due to melting permafrost in the region that eventually gave way, causing the oil to burst out of the fuel tank. This likely theory reveals numerous negative impacts, both on the environment and human health. Firstly, “Northern permafrost region soils contain 1,460-1,600 billion metric tons of organic carbon, about twice as much as currently contained in the atmosphere”, according to government agency Arctic Region. This is an evident danger to the environment due to the greenhouse gas effect, as well as to humans because of increased pollution of air — and it’s only getting worse: according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), if, over the next 50 years, fossil fuel emissions continue to increase, as much as 70% of the world’s permafrost would melt. Another health risk involved with permafrost melting is the release of bacteria and viruses – in fact, in 2014, a huge virus dubbed “Pithovirus” was discovered by scientists in Siberian permafrost that had been untouched for more than 30,000 years — while luckily harmless, it reveals a major hazard that could, unfortunately, re-create the unprecedented circumstances present today.