The largest oil spill in Arctic history

Photograph of a group of multistory pastel buildings behind a layer of tinier rust-colored shacks, above a huge littered pit that takes up most of the picture's bottom half on an overcast day.
Alexander Gronsky, Norilsk #4. 2013, archival pigment print. 42 × 56 1/2". Courtesy of the artist and Polka Galerie, Paris. © Alexander Gronsky, 2013.

The following article was originally published in Novaya Gazeta in July 2020, where it appeared in the original Russian. It has been translated, edited, and abridged for publication in n+1.

The only way to get to Norilsk, the northernmost city in Russia, is by airplane. There are no roads out of the city and the railroad only goes as far as the neighboring town, Dudinka. When you arrive you have to fill out a form, as if you’re entering a foreign country. Actual foreigners are allowed in only with special permission from the FSB.

People come anyway, despite the difficulty, because under the tundra lie numerous precious ores. Copper, nickel, cobalt, palladium, osmium, platinum, gold, silver, iridium, rhodium, and ruthenium are all extracted here, along with commercial sulfur, metallic selenium and tellurium, and sulfuric acid. Over 40 percent of the world’s palladium (used to make catalytic converters) is produced here. So is 10 percent of its platinum (for computers), 20 percent of its nickel (for just about everything), 10 percent of its rhodium (catalytic converters again), and 10 percent of its cobalt (for the battery on your iPhone). Norilsk Nickel, the company that mines all these metals, is one of the largest companies in Russia. Its largest shareholder and CEO is Vladimir Potanin, a well-connected former government minister who along with his now ex-partner Mikhail Prokhorov bought the company for a fraction of its price during the rigged loans-for-shares auctions of the mid-1990s. With an estimated fortune of $29.5 billion, Potanin is among the 100 richest people in the world.

On May 29, 2020, the largest fuel storage tank at Norilsk Heat and Power Plant No. 3 (HPP-3) burst at the bottom and spewed 6.5 million gallons of diesel fuel into the Daldykan River. From there it seeped into the Ambarnaya River, Lake Pyasino, the Pyasina River, and finally into the Kara Sea. It was the largest oil spill in Arctic history.

It took two days for news of the spill to reach “the mainland” — Moscow and the rest of Russia. According to official statements from Nornickel, whose subsidiary NTEK owned HPP-3, and RosPrirodNadzor, the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, the fuel never reached Lake Pyasino, thanks to a series of floating barriers called containment booms that enclosed the spill. Officials also claimed that an offshore wind kept the diesel out of the lake — a wind that blew for two days straight and held back 21,000 tons of fuel as it surged down the river. This story was repeated again and again, as if the officials themselves believed it.

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