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Russia declares state of emergency after massive fuel spill in Arctic Circle

At least 20,000 tonnes of diesel leaked from a power plant in Norilsk and spilled into the Ambarnaya River in Siberia, making it turn red. 

Jun 6, 2020 15:50 IST
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Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency on June 4, 2020 after a massive fuel spill in the Arctic Circle. At least 20,000 tonnes of diesel leaked from a power plant in Norilsk last week and spilled into the Ambarnaya River in Siberia, making it turn red. 

Russia has imposed a state of emergency in the region, as emergency workers and maritime clean-up specialists are putting in intensive efforts to clean up the fuel spill.

The major diesel spill reportedly took place on May 29, 2020 after a fuel tank at a power plant ruptured in the Siberian city of Norilsk. The city is located above the Arctic Circle in north-central Russia. 

How did the fuel spill occur?

A fuel reservoir reportedly collapsed at the power plant in Norilsk. The leakage caused 20,000 tons of diesel fuel to spill into the nearby Ambarnaya River. According to Norilsk Nickel, the fuel tank that ruptured causing the spill was damaged earlier, when supporting pillars that had "held it in place for nearly 30 years began to sink.

Russian President slammed the head of the Norilsk Nickel subsidiary (NTEK), which runs the power plant, for failing to report the oil leakage. Putin allegedly found out about the oil spill two days later when people started posting pictures of the red river on their social media pages. However, Norilsk Nickel maintains that NTEK had reported the incident in a "timely and proper" manner.

Why has Russia declared a state of emergency?

The Russian President stated that a declaration of national emergency was needed to call in more resources for the cleanup effort. The massive oil spill is the second largest accident in modern Russian history in terms of volume, according to World Wildlife Fund expert Alexei Knizhnikov. The largest-ever accident in Russia involved an oil spill in the northwestern region of Komi, which took place over several months in 1994.

Key Highlights

•  Russian Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev is expected to manage the massive clean-up operation.

•  The Russian Investigative Committee has announced that it has launched three criminal probes over environmental violations and also detained an employee of the power plant.

•  The committee also released video footage, which has been shot on a mobile phone and appears to show fuel leaking from the reservoir, under a fence.

•  Diesel fuel being lighter than oil is likely to evaporate rather than sink but it would be more toxic to clean up, according to environmental experts.

•  The fuel spill has drifted at least 12 km on the Ambarnaya river's surface, turning its colour into crimson red.

What is the extent of the damage?

At least 12 km of the Ambarnaya river's surface has been polluted by the spill. According to Environmentalists, the river would be difficult to clean, especially given its shallow waters and remote locations, as well as the magnitude of the spill.

What does this have to do with permafrost?

The Norilsk city was constructed on permafrost like other infrastructure in the Arctic region on the assumption that it would be permanent. However, climate change has caused the temperature to rise, resulting in the melting of ice, which is impacting the infrastructure of the city and other areas in Siberia and the Arctic region.

Siberia along with the Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than other regions, which is raising concerns about its melting permafrost. The Norilsk city is in fact, in a part of Siberia that has experienced unusually warm temperatures this time of the year, at least 5.4 degrees above the long-term average, according to US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

What is permafrost?

Permafrost is ground that remains frozen. It can be located on land or even under the ocean. Permafrost does not necessarily have to be the first layer on the ground, it can be an inch to over miles deep into the Earth’s surface. Around 85 percent of Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland are sitting on top of a permafrost layer. Permafrost is formed when ice holds different kinds of soil, rock and sand together. 

Background

This is not the first spill involving Norilsk Nickel, Russian nickel and palladium mining company. In 2016, an accident in another one of its plants had led fuel to leak into a nearby river, turning it red. The company was fined less than $1,000 for the incident. Norilsk Nickel is the leading producer of nickel and palladiumin the world. The company is one of the main employers in the industrial city of Norilsk, which is a permanent home to around 175,000 people.

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