Catastrophic Diesel Fuel Spill in Siberia Prompts State of Emergency

Catastrophic Diesel Fuel Spill in Siberia Prompts State of Emergency
A glum-looking Vladimir Putin on June 3 during a televised special session to address the fuel spill. (Photo: AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency after an estimated 18,000 tonnes of diesel fuel poured out of a fuel tank and into a nearby river. The spill ” possibly the worst of its kind in the Arctic region ” is being attributed to melting permafrost, yet another sad impact of climate change.

The diesel spill happened last Friday afternoon at a power station near the Siberian city of Norilsk. CNN reported that the company responsible for the tank, Norilsk Nickel, initially tried to contain the spill on its own without alerting state officials to the problem. Alexander Uss, the local governor, became aware of the spill two days later after “alarming information” appeared on social media, according to BBC.

A hefty portion of the diesel fuel poured into the nearby Ambarnaya River, which feeds Lake Pyasino, a major body of water. The spill now encompasses an area measuring 135 square miles (350 square kilometers) and has drifted some 12 kilometres from the power plant, per the BBC.

Photos taken in the Norilsk region show the Ambarnaya River coloured in unsightly hues of red. Rosprirodnadzor, a Russian environmental watchdog, reports that contaminants are now tens of thousands of times over permissible levels. The spill is quite possibly the worst to happen in Russia’s Arctic region and could be an environmental calamity felt in the fragile region for years to come.

“We are talking about dead fish, polluted plumage of birds, and poisoned animals,” Sergey Verkhovets, a member of Russia’s WWF branch, said in a statement.

BBC reported that Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Rosprirodnadzor, estimates it’ll cost around $2 billion to clean up the mess, which could take anywhere from five to 10 years.

In response, the Russian government has declared a state of emergency to deal with the spill. Putin, in a special session chaired by Putin on Wednesday shown on national television, could not hide his anger and frustration over the spill and how long it took for the company to report it.

“Why did the officials find out about this only two days later?” Putin asked Sergei Lipin, head of the subsidiary that owns the power plant. “Are we going to find out about emergencies through social networks?” To which he snidely added, “Do you have a problem or something?”

The accident is being attributed to a failure of the fuel tank’s supporting pillars, which were sinking into the melting permafrost atop which the tank was built. A second tank at the power plant, which is apparently “cracked,” is currently being emptied as a precaution.

“Right now we can assume… that due to abnormally mild summer temperatures recorded in the past years, permafrost could have melted and the pillars under the platform could have sank,” explained Norilsk Nickel chief operating officer Sergei Dyachenko in an interview with the TASS news agency, and as reported in CNN.

The Arctic is warming at nearly twice the rate of the global average, and this year has been exceptionally hot. Large parts of the Russian countryside have a record hot winter.

Six oil containment booms have been placed in the Ambarnaya River to curb the spread of the diesel fuel, reports TASS, and recovery teams are skimming fuel off the surface with special equipment. As of today, some 90 tonnes of spilt fuel have been collected, and a total of 252 people and 72 vehicles are working in the affected areas. This part of Siberia is particularly rugged and swampy, making it difficult for recovery teams to access the affected areas. It’s not immediately clear how this mess can be fully cleaned up, though possible solutions include diluting the oil with chemical reagents or pumping it onto the nearby tundra.

Putin has already ordered an investigation into the incident, and as TASS reports, three criminal cases have been launched on charges of “land deterioration, water pollution and violation of environment protection rules.” The manager of the power plant has also reportedly been detained.

As far as environmental calamities go, this ain’t Norilsk Nickel’s first rodeo. Back in 2016, the nickel and palladium company admitted to an incident that likewise turned a river red. This problem was traced to an overflowing dam and a leaky slurry pipe in a factory.