Russia's mining giant admits to dumping contaminated water into Arctic tundra

Nataliya Vasilyeva
Water from the Norilsk Nickel enrichment plant gushing out of a pipe and into a river - Dmitry Sharomov/Greenpeace via AP

Russia’s mining giant Norilsk Nickel has admitted to spilling wastewater into the wild less than a month after it caused a disastrous oil spill in the same region.

Environmentalists and journalists in the Arctic city of Norilsk on Sunday caught an enrichment plant owned by Norilsk Nickel dumping water full of heavy metals into the Arctic tundra.

The Novaya Gazeta newspaper published footage from outside the city of Norilsk, showing metal pipes leading from a reservoir and releasing foaming liquid into the nearby woods.

The journalists called the police to the scene, prompting the workers to begin to dismantle the pipes.

Environmental activists who took samples at the site of the spill were stopped at the local airport over the weekend and barred from shipping them to Moscow for tests.

An official quoted by the Tass news agency on Monday said that up to 6,000 cubic metres of “unknown liquid with a chemical odour” is believed to have been pumped into tundra.

London-traded Norilsk Nickel later on Sunday admitted to the incident, saying that it has suspended the workers who decided to pump the water into the tundra.

Unnamed workers at the Talnakh plant reportedly suspected that the reservoir for the liquid used to process minerals would soon get overflow and decided to dump the wastewater into the nearby tundra.

Investigators are looking into the incident.

Norilsk Nickel, with the market capitalisation of £36 billion, is a major taxpayer in the region, employing more than 73,000 people.

The metal company’s environmental record came into question last month when some 20,000 metric tonnes of diesel fuel spilled into the river system from a tank at a power plant it owns. The fuel spill, which has been blamed on thawing permafrost, has been described as the Arctic’s worst since the 1989 accident off the coast of Alaska.

Vladimir Chuprov, project director at Greenpeace Russia, says that the Arctic spill has shed the light on the magnitude of day-to-day pollution in Norilsk by one of the country’s biggest industrial companies.

“Norilsk Nickel has been dumping waste water, which is proved by satellite images,” he said, adding that it is high time that the company “stops hiding the violations and gets down to rectifying them.”

Norilsk Nickel insists that it responds to all reports about potential environmental damage.