The black gold, permafrost and a piece of hope | Polarjournal
An image of the Ambarnaya River just before it flows into Lake Pyasino north of Norilsk on May 31, 2020, taken by the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite, showing the waters colored red by the spilled diesel. Photo: ESA

The disaster in Norilsk is strongly linked to climate change. Its effects are already being observed in many places, especially in the sensitive regions of the Arctic. Temperatures are rising much faster than at temperate latitudes, causing the permafrost to thaw more and more. Carbon dioxide and methane that have been stored in the soil for tens of thousands of years is entering the atmosphere in huge quantities, further increasing global warming – a positive feedback. At the same time, environmental disasters are imminent due to collapsing structures built on permafrost, such as the one in Norilsk at the end of May.

The regular activities of the oil industry in Siberia (and also in other parts of the world) are in themselves harmful to local nature and, by using the extracted products as an energy source, also for the global climate.
As it has been strikingly and sadly evident in Norilsk, and has already become apparent in other regions before, local nature always suffers first and foremost from our greed for fossil fuels.
In the case of Norilsk, it is certain that the increasingly thawing permafrost caused the leak in the diesel tank of a combined heat and power plant. Structures built on permafrost, anywhere on Earth, will lose their safe footings as global warming progresses.

Permafrost thickness can range from one meter to 1500 meters. The “active layer” thaws annually and is between 30 and 200 centimeters thick. Graphic: Project PAGE21

Our massive carbon dioxide emissions in recent decades are causing a shift in the seasons towards longer and warmer summers, especially in the Arctic, which is why the thawing layer of the permafrost is increasing and thus destabilizing the subsoil. Norilsk, for example, expects temperatures of around 20°C or more next week — the average maximum temperature in June is 8°C.

Experts agree that more disasters could follow. As early as 2018, scientists warned in a study that 45 percent of the oil and gas fields in the Russian Arctic are located in a high-risk zone where the predicted thawing of permafrost by 2050 could seriously damage infrastructure. Well, the first emergency of catastrophic proportions has already occurred in 2020.

Progress on containment measures

There is no legal basis for mechanisms for an adequate, timely and comprehensive response to such situations and for the prevention of such accidents. President Putin therefore instructed the government and the State Duma at an online meeting on the progress of the measures with the Emergency Minister, the Minister of the Environment, representatives of various federal services and Norilsk Nickel on June 19th, to prepare appropriate bills as soon as possible.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is discussing the further course of action following the diesel spill in Norilsk with those responsible. Photo: Kremlin

In the video conference, President Putin made it clear that the consequences for the environment and aquatic biodiversity are serious. According to Ilya Shestakov, head of the Federal Agency for Fisheries, it will take ten or more years to restore biological balance. “In order to obtain a full assessment of the damage caused, we have decided to conduct a large-scale expedition, which will take place in July,” Shestakov said. However, according to him, it is already certain that two more fish farms will have to be built to ensure the recovery of fish stocks.

Russian Emergency Minister Yevgeny Zinichev is on site in Norilsk and reports that 32,000 cubic meters of water-fuel mixture have already been pumped out and 103,000 cubic meters of contaminated soil have been removed and collected in sealed tanks. The liquid is to be routed directly to the disposal station via a pipeline that is yet to be built. The location of the disposal station was not mentioned.

Employees of Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for the Monitoring of Natural Resources, have so far collected 353 samples which show that the maximum permissible concentration (MPC) of pollutants has been reduced from an excess of over 80,000 times to an 8-22 times excess. The fuel microfilm still remaining on the water surface is to be removed with sorbents, as Svetlana Radionova of Rosprirodnadzor explains. She assures that all these events will be monitored until the very last moment; the work will not end until the ecosystem is fully restored.
In addition, 426 companies in the Russian Arctic will undergo a safety inspection in cooperation with the Federal Service for Ecological, Technical and Nuclear Surveillance by 24 July.

The landscape around Norilsk is characterized by many small rivers and ponds, which have to be cleaned of diesel. The restoration measures will take ten or more years. Map: Google

Alexander Uss, governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, who also attended the meeting, says:

“I believe it is necessary to involve representatives of the indigenous minorities of the North in this work, as many of them express legitimate concerns in face-to-face conversations and meetings that this accident could affect the traditional forms of their management and their lives on this earth.”

Furthermore, given the complexity of the situation, Governor Uss proposes to involve many research teams in the work. The Siberian Federal University is to serve as a coordinating body.

Who is to bear the costs of all measures related to this disaster, President Putin clarified early on – the president of Norilsk Nickel Vladimir Potanin. At the meeting on 19 June, Potanin reaffirmed to cover all costs incurred and also to “cooperate with all organisations involved in the removal of environmental damage and to fully finance this work.”

Russian Minister of the Environment Dmitry Kobylkin described the measures taken so far to contain and eliminate contaminated water and soil as unprecedented and unique on the territory of the Russian Federation. For the future, he proposed to introduce a concept of “management of the reliability and safety of critical infrastructure facilities” and to develop a preventive monitoring system. Digital monitoring systems are already being used in the construction of new plants and existing ones would have to be upgraded.

According to President Putin, the conclusion of the meeting is that this accident could have been prevented with appropriate controls. The fault lies in the system and needs to be fixed as soon as possible. President Putin asked Deputy Prime Minister Victoria Abramchenko to review the existing relevant organisations and control structures:

“I ask you to analyse this with the utmost care […] in order to prevent this from happening in our country, not only in the Arctic, where the ecosystem requires special attention and protection, but in the country in general. It is not only the small peoples of the North who suffer from this, people can suffer everywhere.”

Oil pollution is a persistent problem in Nigeria. After the oil spill in Ogoniland in 2010, the clean-up work has not even truly started yet. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP

An invention that limits environmental damage

Oil spills occur again and again around the world, rarely to such an extent as in Norilsk or the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But even the less spectacular ones, which are not reported in the daily media, cause immense damage to nature. A very illustrative example is the never-ending oil pollution in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, where oil is constantly leaking from extraction facilities and pipelines.

The German non-profit organization One Earth – One Ocean (OEOO), based in Garching near Munich, conducted a self-financed pilot project in the Niger Delta in 2015. Staff and volunteers successfully cleaned a small oil-polluted body of water without having to pump out water or use oil-binding chemicals. Instead of oil binders commonly used, they used a novel cotton wool-like material that adsorbs hydrophobic pollutants such as oil, fuels and solvents. Because of its large surface area, the amount of material needed was much lower than with conventional binders: while, for example, one kilogram of oil binder granules absorbs about half a liter of oil, the same amount of the wax cotton can absorb about 6.5 liters of oil. For OEOO, this was the perfect solution, as they had to transport much less material to Nigeria and disposal was also much cheaper due to the significantly lower amount of binder used. In addition, the adsorbed substances can be separated from the wax cotton by various processes and reused. The wax cotton can also be used several times after separation, which is a great advantage both ecologically and economically. Alternatively, the oil-wax cotton mixture can also be incinerated.

In contrast to granules or oil-releasing chemicals, the use of the wax cotton is completely harmless to nature and the waters to be cleaned, as it can be removed without leaving any residue and leaves behind pure water. Even polluted soils can be decontaminated with the wax cotton.

Some of the best inventions are based on a (technical) accident. One of them is the now patented wax cotton, which is produced by the chemical company DEUREX in Elsteraue in Saxony-Anhalt and marketed under the name PURE. Three years ago, the company even won the European Inventor Award with PURE.

The company DEUREX won the European Inventor Award in 2017 for the novel cotton wool-like oil binder. Video: European Patent Office

As PURE is even effective at Arctic temperatures, the research icebreaker “Polarstern” has had the wax cotton on board since the beginning of the MOSAiC expedition as a preventive measure, in order to be able to quickly remove oil leaked on the ice.

The environmental disaster in Norilsk teaches that one must be prepared for the risks arising from the ever faster thawing permafrost. The laws pushed by President Putin are a crucial step towards the preservation and protection of the Siberian nature.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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