Thawing Permafrost Is To Blame For Giant Arctic Oil Spill, Says Industrial Plant Owners

'Only a small fraction of the pollution can be collected, so it can be argued that almost all diesel fuel will remain in the environment,” Vladimir Chuprov, said Greenpeace Russia. Greenpeace Russia

Thawing permafrost has been blamed for the recent oil spill that polluted vast stretches of Siberia in the Arctic Circle.

On May 29, a diesel tank at an industrial plant in the town of the Siberian city of Norilsk started to leak over 20,000 tons of diesel into the surrounding environment, turning the nearby Ambarnaya River a sickly looking shade of red. 

Nornickel, the world’s biggest nickel producer who owns the plant, argues that the diesel tank started leaking due to the structure being undermined by thawing permafrost, Russian state news agency TASS reports. They claim the melting permafrost caused the diesel tank’s concrete base to collapse. Once the leak started, it’s claimed, a car accident occurred near the fuel spill and caused a fire.

"By the nature of the cracks in the concrete and the collapse of the supporting columns, we believe something happened in the ground – possibly the thawing of the soil," said Sergey Dyachenko, first vice president and operations director of Norilsk Nickel.

Permafrost is ground that has remained frozen for two or more years, although some permafrost has been frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. Due to the impact of climate change, much of the Northern Hemisphere’s once-stable permafrost is starting to thaw, causing a myriad of issues from damaged infrastructure to further release of carbon. Even if global warming is limited to well below 2°C, around 25 percent of the planet’s near-surface permafrost will thaw by 2100, according to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Satellite imagery showing the Ambarnaya River on May 31 and the following day. Copernicus Sentinel data (2020)/Processed by ESA/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

However, some environmental groups are not confident about Nornickel’s claim that thawing permafrost is to blame for the incident. While acknowledging climate change and melting permafrost is a problem in the area, Greenpeace Russia argues the issue is being used to avoid liability for the accident. The environmental group says the company should have been aware of the problem as a 2009 report specifically warned how thawing permafrost in the Norilsk region will affect oil and gas infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, the scale of the damage is starting to become clear. The latest assessment suggests that fuel has spread across an area of 180,000 square meters (around 1,900,00 square feet), pouring into rivers and penetrating soil by up to 5 centimeters (2 inches). Water in some of Norilsk's reservoirs also exceeds 60 times the maximum allowable concentration of hazardous substances.

Clean up operations have been going on since early last week, although it's suspected that the legacy of the environmental disaster will continue to haunt the area for decades.

“With the help of installed booms, only a small fraction of the pollution can be collected, so it can be argued that almost all diesel fuel will remain in the environment,” Vladimir Chuprov, project director of Greenpeace Russia, said in a statement

“The damage could amount to more than 6 billion rubles [$88 million]. And this is without taking into account the increasing factors,” he added.

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