In early June, something disastrous happened: an enormous amount of diesel fuel spilled into a river in Norilsk, a city in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia, located above the Arctic Circle. It's a beautiful, desolate area, known for its harsh weather. It was the home of many Soviet labor camps also known as the Gulags.
The spill, which consisted of some 21,000 tons of fuel, has been described as "catastrophic" by environmental groups. Vast stretches of Arctic waterways have been polluted so badly the reddish-hue can be seen from space. Environmentalists claim it's the worst spill ever to occur in the Arctic region.
A few key things came together to create the disaster. The spill occurred when a fuel storage tank collapsed. "According to available data," read a statement from Russia's prosecutor general, "a preliminary reason for the depressurization of the tank with diesel fuel was the subsidence of the soil and the concrete platform under it."
The Ambarnaya River, which feeds into Lake Pyasino, which then feeds into the Pyasina River, was badly affected. As the fuel traveled towards the river, it polluted 180,000 square meters of land before flowing 12 miles downstream, poisoning a vital watershed that feeds the entirety of the Taimyr peninsula. Svetlana Radionova, a Russian environmental watchdog, called the accident "unprecedented in scope."
President Putin, on seeing the size of the disaster, immediately declared a state of emergency. The spill has shone a light on the dangers of climate change, especially in Russia's Far North. Areas that have been covered in permafrost for hundreds of years are rapidly thawing out. According to Tass, a Russian news agency, the Russian climate gets warmer 2.5 times faster than the world average.
"In order to prevent the recurrence of a similar situation at especially dangerous facilities located in territories subject to permafrost thawing," Russia's statement continued, "the Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation Igor Krasnov, the regional prosecutors, and the environmental prosecutors have been instructed to conduct a comprehensive audit of such locations."
According to reports, the tank was located at a power station. Evgeny Zinichev, head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, explained that when the spill became apparent, the workers at the station tried to contain the fuel on their own and didn't report it to the authorities for two days. By that time, of course, the damage had been done.
"This is one of the biggest oil product accidents ever to have occurred in the Russian Arctic," wrote Greenpeace, "and proves what everyone knew all along - that there is no guaranteed safe way to extract or store fossil fuel products, especially in this remote and inhospitable Arctic region.
This isn't the first time Norilsk has been at the center of an environmental disaster. A 2018 NASA study put it at the top of the list for sulphur dioxide pollution, emitting nearly two million tons each year.
Three criminal probes have been launched into Norilsk Nickel, a metal giant that owns the power station where the spill occurred. It's been reported that President Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin that the company is expected to pay for the cleanup. "It's necessary to carry out all the compensatory measures to restore biodiversity and the environment," he said.
The cleanup is estimated to cost somewhere around 10 billion rubles (US$146 million). "We will spend whatever is needed," said Potanin. "We will return the ecosystem back to normal."