A major diesel spill from a power plant in Siberia has reached a fragile freshwater lake that leads to the Arctic Ocean, according to regional officials. That could create an ecological catastrophe.
Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Krasnoyarsk Territory Governor Alexander Uss said the spilled fuel has reached Lake Pyasino.
“This is a beautiful lake about 70 kilometers [43 miles] long,” said Uss, as reported by Interfax. “Naturally, it has both fish and a good biosphere. But it’s impossible to predict how it will bear this brunt now.”
The important thing right now, he explained, is to prevent the spilled diesel fuel from reaching Pyasina River, which flows into the Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean.
The fuel spill happened at a power plant near the Siberian city of Norilsk on May 29. A fuel reservoir at the power plant leaked the diesel fuel after its pillars collapsed, likely due to the permafrost below it thawing amidst record warmth. Approximately 20,000 tons of red dye diesel fuel poured into the nearby Ambarnaya River, which flows into Lake Pyasino. The accident prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to declare a state of emergency in the afflicted region, and hundreds of workers were dispatched to contain the spill. The oil threatens to contaminate local waterways and the sensitive Arctic ecosystem.
Norilsk Nickel, the company responsible for the accident, is denying the claim made by Krasnoyarsk officials. Last week, a spokesperson for the company told AFP that the spilled fuel had been contained, and in a video conference held yesterday, Norilsk Nickel officials said samples taken from the lake showed “0.0 percent contamination.” Krasnoyarsk officials, in stark contrast, are reporting high concentrations of polluted water in areas beyond the floating containment booms.
Norilsk Nickel has a very poor safety record, which may have contributed to the accident. The company has been accused of using global warming as an excuse for its inaction. Last week, Greenpeace Russia issued a statement accusing the company of trying to “avoid liability for the accident” by invoking climate change. It went on to note the “company could not be unaware of the risks [of permafrost thawing], therefore, it was obliged to conduct more thorough monitoring of soils and prevent the possible destruction of dangerous infrastructure.”
The Norilsk area is hardly alone in facing problems from thawing permafrost. A 2018 study shows that a third of Arctic infrastructure sits on ground that could thaw out by mid-century.
“If you had changed them [the fuel tanks] on time, there would have been no environmental damage and no need to foot such costs,” Putin told Vladimir Potanin, the president of Norilsk Nickel, in a televised meeting last week. Potanin said it could cost “billions of rubles” to clean up the mess caused by the spill. One billion Russian rubles is currently worth $14.5 million dollars.
Deutsche Welle reports that Russian investigators have charged Vyacheslav Starostin, the director of the Norilsk power plant, with violating environmental protection rules. If found guilty, Starostin could face up to five years in prison.