A disaster for Arctic breeding species – the diesel fuel spill in Norilsk

About 10 days ago happened a disastrous spill of almost 21,000 tons of diesel fuel from a storage tank of a company owned by Norilsk Nikel. The ecologists call this the largest ever ecological disaster in the Arctic.

On 29th May at the ground of the electric station – Norils-Taymir Energy Company controlled 100% by Norilsk Nikel the reservoir burst due to subsidence. From the storage reservoir 15 thousand tons leaked into the rivers Daldykan and Ambarnaya and further 6 thousand tons leaked into the ground.

2020-05-23 – Ambarnaya river before the fuel spill

The Ambarnaya river flows into the large Arctic lake Pyasino. Following the assessment of the disaster, the authorities started looking for ways to limit and mitigate the impact. The disaster led to an online conference to discuss ways to solve the disaster with the participation of President Putin and the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, who concluded that he does not know how to solve the problem for 14 days. The local government has declared an emergency situation.

2020-06-08 – Ambaraya river with already visible orange colour patches of the spill in the river and the adjacent lakes

Greenpeace Russia assesses the disaster as the first of this kind in the Arctic and the Ministry of Environment says that it will take at least 10 years before the ecosystems in the region recover from the leakage disaster. The Ministry assesses the ecological catastrophe at over a trillion rubles only for the impact on water.

Pyasina river – a pristine arctic nature territory endagered by the spill – photo Peter-Prokosch

The remoteness of the area, the natural environmental conditions, and the lack of facilities and equipment in the area all pose difficult questions about how if possible the leakage fuel could be removed from the environment.

The oil stain on the Ambarnaya River is fenced with booms. Rescuers continue to take out contaminated soil for temporary storage, where it will be located until Norilsk Nickel finds a solution for its processing.

booms installed to stop the spilling of the fuel into the river

According to Greenpeace Russia, there are several reasons that led to the disaster:

Firstly, it is the unstable soil due to permafrost thawing. This problem is typical for the Arctic zone in the context of global climate change. Processes have been observed for a long time, their intensity is growing. Therefore, companies are required to monitor soils and prevent possible destruction of infrastructure.

In their view, the disaster could have been avoided if all industrial safety rules had been observed during the operation of such hazardous facilities. To the complex of reasons can be attributed the lack of effective environmental and technological supervision by the state in the region.

According to Rosprirodnadzor, now there is no danger for the oil pollution of Lake Pyasino, which belongs to the Kara Sea basin. “To say that the spot is moving towards the Kara Sea is premature. However, from Greenpeace Russia says that no more than 10% of the leaked fuel could be collected. Now the maximum permissible concentration (MPC) of diesel fuel in the water near the accident site is exceeded tens of thousands of times, no fish in this zone will survive. In addition, birds that land on the water and animals that drink it can be affected. Diesel will settle to the bottom and pollute a significant area during floods.

According to the Ministry of Ecology of the Krasnoyarsk Region, the spill could not be stopped. Although booms were installed near the site of the accident, oil products spread beyond them.

Pyasino Lake is located about 20 kilometers from Norilsk, the water surface is 735 sq km. It collects water from other large lakes located on the territory of the Putorana Plateau (Putorana State Nature Reserve). The only river that flows from the lake – Pyasina, which is located on the territory of one of the clusters of the Great Arctic Reserve and flows into the Kara Sea. In the water bodies of the Pyasina basin, 38 species of fish live there, including whitefish and char, muksun.

Arctic breeding birds will be endangered if the fuel reaches Pyasina river – photo Peter-Prokosch

“If the diesel travels up the Pyasina river into the reserve are will be great danger, that is a nesting place for 30,000 geese. The river is legendary for the Muksun fish, there are reindeer and bears, the state of affairs is kind of crucial,” said Vladimir Chuprov, from Greenpeace Russia

Flock of moulting geese in summer in Taymyr – photo Sonia Rozenfeld

The river Pyasina is part of the breeding territory of the Red-breasted Goose and some 70% of the global population is thought to occur on the Taymyr peninsula. Some of the LIFE Project satellite-tracked Redbreasts bred last summer on the river shores and islands. But Taymyr is not only a major breeding area but also a major moulting area for Red-breasted Geese and other arctic breeding geese as well. The territory is also important for a number of other species – many of the arctic breeding waders, many waterfowl species. Therefore the disaster impact of the diesel fuel spill might be much larger and widespread than thought in this key and important area for arctic biodiversity.

Sources: bbc.com; greenpeace.ru, wwf.ru; Reuters,