Norilsk: The city built by gulag prisoners where Russia guards its Arctic secrets

Norilsk: The city built by gulag prisoners where Russia guards its Arctic secrets
By: World News Posted On: July 03, 2020 View: 15

Norilsk: The city built by gulag prisoners where Russia guards its Arctic secrets

The drive from Norilsk airport to the city takes you past mile after mile of crumbling, Soviet-era factories.

It looks like an endless, rusting scrapyard - a jumble of pipes, industrial junk and frost-bitten brickwork. If you were looking for an industrial apocalypse film setting, this would be your place - but you're unlikely to get the permissions.

Norilsk was built in Stalin's times by gulag prisoners. This gritty industrial city is a testament to their endurance both of the cruelty of Stalin's regime and of the harsh polar climate. There were no thoughts then on how to build to protect the environment, just to survive it.

Norilsk in Russia. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: The drive into Norilsk is like travelling through an endless, rusting scrapyard. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
The Russian city of Norislk. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: The Russian city of Norilsk is 1,800 miles northeast of Moscow. Pic: Anastasya Leonova

Vasily Ryabinin doesn't think much has changed, at least in ecological terms. He used to work for the local branch of the federal environmental watchdog, Rosprirodnadzor, but quit in June after exposing what he says was a failure to investigate properly the environmental impact of the gigantic diesel spill which poured into two Arctic rivers in late May.

At 21,000 tonnes, it was the largest industrial spill in the polar Arctic.

Despite the Kremlin declaring a federal emergency and sending a host of different agencies to participate in the clean-up, just last week Mr Ryabinin and activists from Greenpeace Russia found another area where technical water used in industrial processes was being pumped directly into the tundra from a nearby tailing pond. Russia's investigative committee has promised to investigate.

"The ecological situation here is so bad," Mr Ryabinin says.

"The latest constructions such as the tailing pond at the Talnack ore-processing plant were built exclusively by Nornickel chief executive Vladimir Potanin's team and supposedly in accordance with ecological standards, but on satellite images you can see that all the lakes in the vicinity have unnatural colours and obviously something has got into them."

Nornickel Plant and container (on the left) which had the leak. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: Staff were suspended at the Nornickel plant after the leak . Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Nornickel headquarters in Norilsk. Building at the end. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: The Nornickel headquarters in Norilsk. Pic: Anastasya Leonova

Mining company Nornickel would disagree. It has admitted flagrant violations at the tailing pond and suspended staff it deems responsible at both the Talnack plant and at Norilsk Heat and Power plant no 3 where the diesel spill originated from.

On Thursday it appointed Andrey Bougrov, from its senior management board, to the newly-created role of senior vice president for environmental protection. It has a clear environmental strategy, provides regular updates on the status of the spill, and its Twitter feed is filled with climate-related alerts.

But what investors read is very different to the picture on the ground.

Norilsk used to be a closed city - one of dozens across the Soviet Union shut off to protect industrial secrets. Foreigners need special permissions approved by the Federal Security Service (FSB) to enter the region. It would take an invitation from Nornickel to make that happen and, for the past month since the spill, that has not been forthcoming.

Unlike in Soviet times, Russian citizens are now free to come and go. That's why our Sky News Moscow team were able to fly in and travel around the city, even if getting to the spill site was blocked. What they were able to film provides a snapshot of the immense challenge Russia faces in upgrading its Soviet-era industrial infrastructure, particularly at a time when climate change is melting the permafrost on which much of it was built.

Dead forest near Norilsk, Russia. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: The trees are dead near Norilsk. Pic: Anastasya Leonova

Just downwind from one of the rusting factories on the city outskirts is a huge expanse of dead land. The skeletal remains of trees stand forlorn against the howling Arctic winds. Sulphur dioxide poisoning has snuffed the life out of all that lived here. Norilsk is the world's worst emitter of sulphur dioxide by a substantial margin.

"For 80km south of here everything is dead," Mr Ryabinin says, "and for at least 10km in that direction too. Everything here depends on the wind."

Sample took by Vasily Ryabinin near the Nornickel plant in Norilsk, Russia, on the day of an accident. Pic: Vasily Ryabinin
Image: A sample taken by Vasily Ryabinin near the Nornickel plant. Pic: Vasily Ryabinin

Immediately after the spill, Mr Ryabinin filmed and took samples from the Daldykan river just a few kilometres from the fuel tank which had leaked. By that point the river was a churning mix of diesel and red sludge dredged up from the riverbed by the force of the leak. Norilsk's rivers have turned red before and the chemical residues have sunk to the bottom, killing all life there. Nothing has lived in those rivers for decades.

In his capacity as deputy head of the local environmental watchdog, Mr Ryabinin says he insisted that he be allowed to fly further north to check the levels of contamination in Lake Pyasino and beyond. Nornickel at the time claimed the lake was untouched by the spill. Mr Ryabinin says his boss encouraged him to let things be.

"I can't be sure I would have found anything, but this sort of confrontation - making sure I didn't go there with a camera, let alone with bottles for taking samples, it was all very clear to me. It was the final straw."

Rosprirodnadzor refused to comment to Sky News on Mr Ryabinin's allegations or suggestions that the agency was working hand in hand with Nornickel.

The Nornickel plant and the place where diesel meets red water (polluted by other chemicals). Pic: Vasily Ryabinin
Image: The Nornickel plant, where diesel meets red water. Pic: Vasily Ryabinin

Georgy Kavanosyan is an environmental blogger with a healthy 37,000 following on YouTube. Shortly after the spill, he set out for Lake Pyasino and to the Pyasina River beyond to see how far the diesel had spread.

"We set out at night so that the Norilsk Nickel security wouldn't detect us. I say at night, but they've got polar nights there now, north of the Arctic Circle. So it's still light but it's quieter and we managed to go past all the cordons."

He is one of the few to have provided evidence that the diesel has in fact travelled far beyond where the company admits. Not just the 1,200km (745m) length of Lake Pyasino but into the river beyond.

He says his measurements indicated a volume of hydrocarbons dissolved in the water of between two and three times normal levels. He thinks after he published his findings on YouTube, the authorities' vigilance increased.

Greenpeace Russia have spent the last two weeks trying to obtain samples from Lake Pyasino and the surrounding area. They have faced difficulties getting around and flying their samples out for independent analysis.

They are now waiting for results from a laboratory in St Petersburg but say the samples remain valid technically for just four days after collection and that they weren't able to make that deadline due to the authorities' actively obstructing their work.

Vasily Ryabinin and Elena Sakirko from Greenpeace. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: Vasily Ryabinin and Elena Sakirko from Greenpeace. Pic: Anastasya Leonova

Elena Sakirko from Greenpeace Russia specialises in oil spills and says this has happened to her before. This time, a police helicopter flew to the hunter's hut where they were staying and confiscated the fuel for the boat they were using. Then a deputy for the Moscow city parliament tasked with bringing the samples back from Norilsk was forced to go back empty-handed.

"We were told at the airport we needed permission from the security department of Nornickel," Ms Sakirko says. "We asked them to show us some law or statement to prove that this was legal or what the basis for this was, but they haven't showed us anything and we still don't understand it."

Nornickel announced this week that the critical stage of the diesel spill is over. The company is now finalising dates for a press tour for foreign media and for other international environmentalists.

Mr Ryabinin thinks this should have happened weeks ago.

"If we don't let scientists come to the Arctic region to evaluate the impact of the accident, then in the future if anything similar happens, we won't know what to do."

A spokesperson for Nornickel said the company "is actively cooperating with the scientific community and will meticulously assess both the causes and effects of the accident.

The Russian city of Norilsk. Pic: Anastasya Leonova
Image: Norilsk is an industrial city in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. Pic: Anastasya Leonova

"We are currently focusing all our efforts on cleaning up the affected territory and safely processing whatever contaminated soil or water is collected. We expect decontamination efforts to largely be completed before the onset of winter."

Nornickel considers permafrost thawing to be the primary cause of the accident, but is waiting for the end of investigation before making a final statement, the spokesperson said.

"In the meantime, Nornickel has implemented a series of urgent measures to increase industrial safety. Among other solutions, an advanced system for monitoring the state of permafrost is expected to be developed by the end of 2021," they said.

"Nornickel accepts full responsibility for the incidents on its sites these past two months and holds itself accountable for any infrastructural deficits or poor decisions by personnel. The imperative is to do everything to clean up our sites, instil a stronger culture of transparency and safety in our workforce, and ensure that such situations do not occur in the future."

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