COVID-19 Special Coverage
Putin declares state of emergency after major oil spill in Arctic Circle

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency Wednesday after 20,000 tons of diesel oil leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle. The spill went unreported for two days, which may have caused irreparable damage to the region.

The spill was caused by a fuel tank at a power plant near the Siberian city of Norilsk, which collapsed last Friday. The plant is owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel), which is the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer. The Norilsk plant had reportedly spent two days trying to contain the spill, before alerting the government. The Russian Investigative Committee (SK) has launched a criminal case over the pollution and alleged negligence. The director of the power plant, Vyacheslav Starostin, has subsequently been taken into custody but has not yet been charged.

The collapse of the tank and subsequent leak is believed to have been caused by ground subsidence, sinking or settling of surface terrain, as a result of the abnormally warm weather and melting permafrost. The oil has already drifted 12km (7.5 miles) from the accident site and is estimated to have contaminated at least a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area. The spill has also caused large portions of the Ambarnaya river to turn a dark crimson red.

In a televised press conference Wednesday Putin heavily criticized the head of the Nornickel over the company’s response to the disaster. In a separate statement, Nornickel has said that the incident had been reported to the government in a “timely and proper” way. Their statement contradicts comments from the region’s governor, Alexander Uss, that his office had informed Putin that they only became aware of the oil spill on Sunday after “alarming information appeared in social media.”

Putin’s state of emergency declaration means that more government forces will be deployed to the area to assist with the ongoing clean-up operation. The accident is already believed to be the second-largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, Alexei Knizhnikov, told AFP.

The incident has prompted many warnings from leading environmental organizations, who believe that the scale of the spill and sprawling geography of the river will mean that it will be difficult to clean up. Oleg Mitvol, the former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, stated that there has “never been such an accident in the Arctic zone.” He also added that an effective clean-up could cost as much as 100bn roubles (£1.2bn; $1.5bn) and take between five and 10 years.

Also, notably, this is not the first time Nornickel has been involved in an oil spill. In 2016 they admitted that a chemical spill at another one of its plants was also responsible for turning the Daldykan River blood red after rains damaged a filtration dam at its Nadezhda metallurgical plant. That was also investigated, but the damage from it was ultimately on a much smaller scale and relatively short term.