The Voluminous Oil Spill of Russia That Left Arctic Crimson and the World Shocked

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29th May 2020 gave the world yet another disaster in the series of a train-wreck of a year. Norilsk Nickel is a metal mining giant. The company is the leading producer of palladium as well as nickel, platinum and copper. A subsidiary of the same is the origin site of the oil spill. The storage tank leaked, spilling the “oil products” and causing ecological harm.

The massive spillage is the second largest of its kind in Russia. It has spread around 7.5 miles (around 12 km) from the site of accident. It also resulted in the Ambarnaya River turning into bright red and contaminated approximately 135 square miles of area. 

Shocking revelations came into the spotlight about the Russian administration and the corporation. The incident went unreported for almost 2 whole days. The Government body became aware of it only after, and through social media. Reports have stated President Putin lashing out to the irresponsibility of the corporation as well as the regional governor.

Russia’s top law enforcement body – The Investigative Committee, has launched a criminal probe into the matter of 20,000 tons of oil spillage. The focus is following the “unexplained decompression” of a storage tank, pollution and alleged negligence.

Cause of the Catastrophe

The occurrence of the spill, reportedly, is as an accident caused by thawing of permafrost. In layman terms, the layer of soil which remains frozen for about 2 years and considered to be permanent, defrosted. This resulted in the sudden sinking of supporting posts in the basement of the storage tank and causing the spill.

Permafrost thawing is increasing in frequency, especially Siberia and the Arctic region. The leading, rather the only cause is climate change. Landslides and collapse of structures are the most likely aftereffects. The Washington Post has reported on this and also states the report of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of an increase in average temperature by almost 5.4 degrees.

It calls to immediate attention that the architecture and industrial development around the area be immediately checked. It will help avoid any such potential disasters. Especially since the Arctic region of Russia has a lot of permafrost region, and the climate crisis is a driving factor. 

The Impact

A disaster of this scale has created a heavy impact of both ecological as well as financial aspects. The ecological impact of the oil spill, its repercussions will remain for years. In a statement by Sergey Verkhovets (coordinator of Arctic projects for WWF Russia), he talks about effect on biodiversity – the polluted plumage of birds, dead marine biodiversity, and poisoned animals.

The geographical location of Ambarnaya River also poses a major threat to the Arctic Ocean. The river flows River Pyasina which connect to the Kara Sea which is a part of the Arctic Ocean. The scope of marine pollution is extensive. According to 2018 NASA study based on satellite data, Norilsk tops the list for worst sulphur dioxide pollution. This only further highlights the grave and sensitive issue that is at hand. The local ecology, according to reports, is somewhat spared. The local communities are safe from immediate impact due to the remote location of the site of disaster. Since the location of the disaster is remote. 

The financial impact is going to dent the Russian economy. The former deputy head of Rosprirodnazor (environmental ministry), Oleg Mitvol has stated that the clean-up procedure may run into billions of Roubles. Estimation of 1.5bn US dollars and the time of 5 to 10 years is the current calculation. 

Measures in Force

  • A state of emergency is declared in the city of Norilsk and Taymir region. 
  • An emergency response team has been set up chaired by the city mayor of Norilsk. It has managed to clean up and gather 340 tonnes of oil, negligible when compared to the amount spilled.
  • Installation of special ‘containment booms’ in Ambranaya River. It will help contain the spill from extending into the Arctic Ocean.
  • It is a difficult task due to the remote location of the site, lack of road, and being too shallow for the use of barges. 
  • Russia’s chief prosecutor gave orders for regional and environmental prosecutors to conduct a “thorough check” of “particularly dangerous installations” located on “territories exposed to permafrost melting”.
  • Appointment of construction, technical, environmental and other examiners will help establish the damage
  • Investigations have begun to interrogate individuals. (Including officials responsible for informing the public about the emergency).

Criminal Liability

The Investigative Committee has opened three criminal investigations into the incident. It probes into pollution and alleged negligence. They have also detained the Power plant’s director, Vyacheslav Starostin.

The Criminal Code of the Russian Federation has charged the three criminal cases under: 

  1. Art. 254 – Damage to the land
  2. Art. 246 – Violation of rules of environment protection during work
  3. Art. 250 – Water pollution

It is imperative to note the alignment with the inherent value of environmental laws. 

Declaring Emergency: Prospective benefits

According to the Constitutional Order of the Russian Federation a state of emergency introduced to “eliminate the circumstances that served as the basis for the introduction of a state of emergency…” 

The primary goal is to assist with the clean-up operation. President Putin said that a state of emergency is essential to call in more resources for the cleanup effort. This declaration would bring in extra forces and federal resources for the clean-up.

As Yevgeny Zinichev, Russian Minister of Emergency Situations summed up – “Declaration of a State of Emergency of Federal importance allows us to secure the participation of all interested government bodies and government corporations”. 

Upon decoding the situation, the emergency may be beneficial. The emergency prevails only in a particular region and for a particular period. The purpose is also definite. The undivided attention and focus of both the government and the resources may fasten the process of the clean-up operation. The end result depends on the empirical statistics after the lifting of the emergency which seems hopeful.

Conclusion

In cases of a huge oil spill, it is tried to burn off the fuel. But in the given conditions of warming Arctic region, burning of fuel is adding to the issue of permafrost and climate crisis. Dmitri Kobylkin, Russian Minister of Natural Resources, has warned about the same.

He has also proposed the idea of dilution through reagents. This method usually works well in cases of a spill of less volume. Dealing with the disaster of this scale through this method may not be viable. Since the most effective method of barges and booms may not work in this scenario due to the shallowness of the river, oil reagents must be tried.

There is a suggestion about pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra although it is already saturated with oil due to the impact the incident.

The citizens of Russia are participating and demanding enhancement of environmental control. Corporations have the imposition held at serious accountability standards to establish deterrence. The imposition of criminal liabilities, like in this case, is a step towards deterrence. Checks of installations on permafrost are necessary and implemented. This can help avoid such potential spillage. Address of the issue of the climate crisis is even more urgent witnessing Siberia and Arctic’s condition. It is a warning call to the world.


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