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Next ‘stop’ Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean?

By Anna Liesowska
10 June 2020

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as rivers of diesel pollution cover-up is exposed.

Lake Pyasino, north of Krasnoyarsk region. Picture: Yevgeny Kozlov

A huge flow of diesel has reached stunning Lake Pyasino in the Arctic after the recent accident at a thermal power plant near Norilsk, it is believed.

This indicates the failure of initial attempts to contain the toxic pollution, and with the lake linked by the Pyasina River to the Kara Sea there are now fears much worse is to come. 

A grim Krasnoyarsk governor Alexander Uss said: 'The fuel has got into Pyasino. This is a beautiful lake about 70 kilometres long. 

‘Naturally, it has both fish and a good biosphere. But it's impossible to predict how it will bear this brunt now.

‘At the moment, it's important to prevent it [spilled fuel] from pouring into the Pyasina River, which flows farther to the north. 

‘I think that it will be possible.’ 

Next ‘stop’ Kara Sea in the Arctic Ocean?

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
With the lake linked by the Pyasina River to the Kara Sea there are now fears much worse is to come. Pictures: The Siberian Times, social media


On 29 May, diesel leaked into the Ambarnaya and Daldykan rivers from a fuel tank weakened by permafrost thawing at Power Plant No. 3 of Norilsk-Taymyr Energy Company (NTEC), which is part of Norilsk Nickel and provides electricity for the Norilsk industrial district.

Disturbing pictures and footage of the discoloured toxic rivers were revealed by the media. It is now clear that early hopes of stemming the pollution have failed, and the scale of the ecological catastrophe is becoming clearer. 

The quantity fuel released mainly into the river system above the Arctic Circle would fit into 350 train wagons.

The lake under immediate threat is of glacial origin and is some 20 km from Norilsk. The only river flowing out of it - the Pyasina passes through the Great Arctic State Nature Reserve and flows into the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

Norilsk Nickel - the giant company ultimately behind the leak - strenuously denies both that diesel has reached the lake or that there is any threat to the Kara Sea.

A graphic, below, sets out their position which is in stark contrast to both government officials and environmentlists. 

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
Norilsk Nickel strenuously denies both that diesel has reached the lake or that there is any threat to the Kara Sea. Picture: Norilsk Nickel 


The pessimistic comments from governor Uss echo those of the deputy ecology minister in Krasnoyarsk region, Yulia Gumenyuk, who indicated that the main line of defence - oil booms placed in the rivers - have failed to prevent diesel flowing towards and into the lake.

‘Behind the booms we see a large concentration of dissolved petroleum products,’ she said. ‘That is, today’s booms, according to our tentative assessment, is an ineffective measure to exclude pollution of the water body. Or they were installed later than reported, after the main spot has already passed.’

Disturbingly, she revealed that on the Ambarnaya, beyond the booms, the concentration varies from 80 to 116 times the maximum limits. 

Rivers of diesel

Petroleum products were also spotted in Pyasino but so far within the maximum concentration limits, Yulia Gumenyuk claimed. 

‘We still assume that they got there [after the spill], because there are oil products in the lake.’

It is clear, as we will see below, that some sources believe most of the outflow of diesel has reached the lake and question whether the right tests have been taken. 

‘Now we will continue the observation,’ she said.

'At the source of the river [Pyasina}, we do not yet observe oil products. There are natural barriers in the form of large ice floes, but as soon as the ice is gone, more efficient booms need to be installed there to prevent water from entering the river.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
The quantity fuel released mainly into the river system above the Arctic Circle would fit into 350 train wagons. Pictures: Norilsk Nickel


Closer to the spill site in Bezymyanny spring analysis shows 1,100 times the maximum concentration limits. 

Wind the clock back, and late on 29 May, Vasily Ryabinin, twice an employee of Norilsk Nickel and now a regional inspector of state ecological watchdog Rosprirodnadzor was on his way home when he received a call from his chief.

'He told me about an emergency, a fuel leak from a tank, and he asked me to go there and check what had happened,’ said Ryabinin.

‘I told him that he was very close to the place of the leak, since he was on the Daldykan, so he could be very fast to this place.

‘He went there, called me, and told me that he was not allowed there. He came back to the office, we discussed the situation, and decided we must monitor it, we cannot just leave it as it is. 

‘We have no special transport in our department, so I asked my wife to be our driver. 

‘We passed our kids to our friends and rushed there. 

‘When we arrived at the accident site, we were not allowed there by the security guards of TPP. We saw a police car there, approached it, reported that we are from Rosprirodnadzor and must check the emergency scene.

'My chief showed them documents, but they did not allow us to enter, saying it was private territory.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed

The position of the diesel spot as of June 1, the spot is located close to Pyasino lake behind the area where the booms were reportedly set up. Pictures: European Space Agency


This sounds incredible but it was true: the state’s own local ecological watchdog officials were not permitted to visit the scene of an environmental emergency of huge proportions. 

‘They told us we must get permission from the chiefs of Norilsk Fuel and Energy Company, but we did not have much time,’ said Vasily Ryabinin.

‘We asked them: ‘Whose interests are you protecting, guys?’ But they did not allow us to enter. 

‘We just turned around and drove towards the Daldykan River. 

'We came close to the river, began taking pictures and the security guards spotted us and called their chiefs reporting we were here. 

‘We drove further, and stopped not so far from the railway bridge across the Daldykan River. 

‘About 500 metres from the river we felt a strong smell of diesel.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
‘It was just a mountainous river of diesel, the smell of the diesel was very strong. I felt like I was drunk'. Picture of Vasily Ryabinin credit Norilchane


'It was a clear feeling of catastrophe'

They now ‘realised this is very serious’, and Ryabinin described the horror they witnessed. 

‘Standing on the bridge we saw how it (diesel) foams and boils,’ Vasily said. ‘We started taking pictures and filming, it was about 6 pm. 

‘It was just a mountainous river of diesel, the smell of the diesel was very strong. 

‘My chief even did not take a risk to light a cigarette, so strong was the smell. 

‘We found a plastic bottle, went down to the river. I felt like I was drunk. I asked Andrey how he was and he told me he feels the same. 

‘Then I asked my wife to stand higher on the railway embankment and told her, in case we fall down, do not descend, just call the rescuers. 

‘You must be there to understand what it looks like, to see this diesel river. 

‘We also managed to secretly check the accident scene from afar. It was a clear feeling of catastrophe.’ 

Polluted Ambarnaya river from above

Ryabinin said how the pair ‘sent pictures and videos to our chiefs, but did not get any further instructions.’

Later the head of Rosprirodnadzor, Svetlana Radionova, would help to alert attention to this nightmare by posting their pictures. 

She also said that they were from social media, when in fact they were sent by her subordinates.

Yet this led to a response that would see President Vladimir Putin enraged with power company executives and regional officials for the slow speed with which the alarm was raised. 

Ryabinin continued his story, told to local ecology activists.

‘I met my ex-colleagues from the security department of Nornickel (Norilsk Nickel), and they asked me how I would access the situation. I told them it was a catastrophe. 

‘I told them they must do anything right now, time was being lost. I told them, I was sure that this diesel is already in Lake Pyasino.’ 

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
The leaked tank is marked on the video released by Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations 


Vasily Ryabinin knows this bleak Arctic territory well.

‘This was logical because this river has rather a fast flow,’ he said. The bridge we were standing on was about 20 kilometres from Pyasino.

‘About 10 km of this stretch are calm flow, and I believed that the large part of diesel has already passed the place where we were standing. 

‘It is natural that in two days it had reached Pyasino.’

Hopes - which have been expressed publicly - that the diesel had been stopped from reaching the lake ‘are based on ideas like there was a pressing wind’ which prevented the toxic flow.

Ryabinin insisted: ’It is not reliable. I told them: ‘Do anything, put the booms, call your Arctic department in Dudinka, they must have them, as they use booms when fuelling ships. 

‘So they put the booms on around 1 June.’ 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mIKrkxwKz-Q&feature=youtu.be
Lake Pyasino on a satelline picture on 8 June 2020. Picture: Sentinel-2


Then something else strange happened. 

'On 1 June arrived the person who was responsible for gathering samples (from Rosprirodnadzor’s department in regional capital Krasnoyarsk). 

‘We managed to check the accident site, and went from the tank to the Daldykan river. There was already almost no leak, just some leftovers. 

‘It was also reported that there were some activists taking samples at the lake and they said there was a diesel smell too. 

‘And there was some diesel in the samples.

‘It was not far from Trudny island. Employees of the Prosecutor's Office were going to reach the place by helicopter.

‘I was not allowed to that helicopter, because there were no places. I passed them GPS and the description which samples must be taken - but they told me they could not reach Pyasino in the end. 

'They said they had instructions to take the samples only at the booms. 

‘Soon it was sounded like the version that nothing had spread to Pyasino - thanks to the pressing wind.

'On 4 June, I was allowed to take the samples at the booms, but I also noted that the river banks downstream of the booms were polluted with diesel, for at least about 10 metres. I realised that we are spoiling our nature and it was not right that we are doing nothing about this. 

‘We need to do anything we could - at least for the sake of our kids.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed

Rescuers pictured working by rivers Ambarnaya and Daldykan; more than 500 people from Murmansk, Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk were sent to work at the spot. Pictures: Norilsk Nickel


Ryabinin said: ‘I don't quite understand why they hide the scale.

‘It will emerge anyway - there are villages, fishermen downstream, sooner or later they will notice diesel. There will be deer and bears, poisoned. 

‘As for the fish - I think we have lost all the fish there.’ 

He is sceptical over claims that Pyasino is not especially polluted from this incident. 

‘We have to examine Lake Pyasino and then determine the location for tests,’ he said.

And he warned: ‘If a storm comes, (the fuel) will settle down on the banks and will slowly poison the ecosystem of Norilsk and Pyasino.

‘The consequences won't be immediate. It might also reach the Kara Sea.’

Dmitry Klokov, from the Federal Agency of Fisheries, told Kommersant newspaper that its monitoring suggests the bulk of leaked diesel fuel went under the barrage booms on the Ambarnaya and is now located in Pyasino.

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
First pictures taken after the fuel leak. Pictures: Svetlana Radionova


Threat to wildlife

Pavel Kochkarev, director of the Central Siberian Reserve, told Prospekt Mira newspaper of the appalling threat to wildlife

’20,000 tons of diesel fuel that leaked into the rivers is a disaster in itself,’ he said. ‘These are 350 wagons (of fuel) that rushed along the rivers with terrible speed, and some significant part of the fuel fell into Lake Pyasino. 

‘From here it flows the Pyasina River, along which are the main pastures of wild reindeer. Geese coming from the south nest here, including many Red Book birds, such as the Red-throated Goose. 

'Now in the north, due to the high temperature, there is an early flood - that is, huge areas are flooded with water, through which diesel fuel will spread. Water will then decrease, and diesel fuel, as a light agent, will settle on all grassy and shrubby vegetation along the banks of Pyasina, where deer eat and birds nest.

‘In addition, part of Pyasina is still iced over. The ice will be saturated with diesel fuel and then carry it further.

‘We still cannot say what consequences this will lead to. Now there will be summer field work, a lot of scientists will leave for the place - and probably, closer to September, something can be said. 

‘But so far the forecast is not good.

‘For 70 years, our deer has practically adapted to the emissions of the Norilsk works - every year we take analyses of internal organs, deer tissues, and feed conditions, and we see this. 

‘Naturally, there are massive changes in the immune system, in the reproductive system in both males and females, but they nevertheless adapted to the chronic effects of the plant. 

‘And now this May this release of fuel happens.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed


Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
Taymyr population of reindeer. Pictures: Taimyr Nature Reserve


Satellite pictures from European agencies show that reddish water at the very entrance to Pyasino lake.

Images from Roscosmos on 4 June showed no red spots at this place, rather indicating upstream and contained by the booms. But it appears likely pollution already passed into Pyasino lake the time the booms were put in place. 

Local activists like Ruslan Abdulaev say they are being kept away from key sites in this saga. 

‘The place of the fuel spill is strictly protected from prying eyes, there’s no way to get there. 

‘We, as volunteers, expressed a desire to help in the elimination of emergencies, and at the same time assess the scale of the environmental disaster on the spot.

‘This definitely needs public control.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
It appears likely pollution already passed into Pyasino lay the time the booms were put in place. Picture: TVK6


There is a gloomy assessment, too, from Alexander Kolotov, head of Rivers Without Borders. 

‘We often hear the official slogans about the development of the Arctic,’ he said. ‘The current environmental disaster is actually a real stress test for the region, which shows that we are absolutely not ready for this. 

‘The true circumstances of how 20,000 tons of diesel could leak into the river remain a mystery. The fact is that around tanks for petroleum products there is always a special protective platform with sides, which should contain the entire volume of fuel during its spill. 

‘It turns out that in this case there were holes in the fence or a salvo breakthrough was of such force that it destroyed the protective walls. 

WAS IT THAWED PERMAFROST, NEGLIGENCE - OR BOTH?

‘It is ridiculous to explain what happened to the thawed soil due to an abnormally warm weather. This is not force majeure and not an emergency, but a completely predictable thing that you could think about in advance. Such things should be identified at a routine technical inspection. 

‘It is also striking that the information reached the centre only two days later, that is, the warning system does not work at all. 

‘At the same time, local ecologists already had satellite images showing the scale of the disaster. 

‘But the time factor plays a huge role.

‘The main problem is that the leak was not of oil itself, but of the product of its processing - diesel. 

‘An oil slick is held on the surface of the water, and diesel sinks to the bottom and mixes with water and silt. In addition, the chemical components of diesel fuel are much more toxic. 

‘Booms will not be able to completely stop the diesel, part of the oil product will still go beyond and then settle to the bottom. For complete cleaning, it is necessary to completely remove the soil from the bottom of water bodies. So far it is about at least collecting all the spots from the surface. 

‘Now there are problems with this, as there are not enough tanks to drain pumped oil products. 

‘And it’s problematic to quickly deliver them to the tundra.

‘It is clear that with this attitude to ecology, the development of the Arctic will lead to the fact that we simply will not preserve the nature of the region.’

A local man shows how a newspaper dipped into river Ambarnaya catches fire

Norilsk epidemiologist Natalya Zotova warned about the potential impact on people.

She told NGS24 that diesel when combined with air and water turns into gaseous substances, toxic fumes that people will inhale. 

Oily compounds that have leaked into water are also dangerous to humans. 

She said: 'Of course, there will be consequences. 

‘The number of oncological diseases, skin diseases, diseases and inflammations of the broncho-pulmonary system, liver and kidney diseases, and eating disorders will increase. 

‘This pollution of water, soil, air will not pass in vain for people and the ecology of the nature of the North.’

Toxic fuel from 21,000 ton leak reaches pristine lake, bypassing floating booms, as ‘rivers of diesel’ pollution cover-up is exposed
Diesel sinks to the bottom and mixes with water and silt. In addition, the chemical components of diesel fuel are much more toxic. Picture: Norilsk Nickel


Meanwhile, the Emergencies Ministry is stressing the effectiveness of work to remedy the leakage. 

The state has assessed that 6,000 tons of diesel seeped into the ground - which is now being cleared. 

Another 15,000 ended up in nearby waterways.

The director of the power plant Vyacheslav Starostin has become the fall guy for the scandal, and has been charged with violating environmental protection rules, said the Russian Investigative Committee. 

Comments (3)

thank you for this detailed article
me, Berlin
20/07/2020 02:05
1
0
Thank you Siberian Times for this disturbing but informative and factual article. I was not aware that diesel sinks and mixes with water making it more chemically toxic than oil remaining on the surface.

Be it thawed permafrost, negligence or both; it is an ecological and environmental catastrophe, as well as tragedy
Thank you to all the scientists, rescue workers and officials who have taken emergency action.

However the guilty company/persons must surely also be made responsible for the cleaning up aftermath and precautions to stop the diesel from penetrating into the Kara sea. With the necessary security measures that it will never occur again in the future.
Anonymous, Switzerland
25/06/2020 22:40
4
0
This is disturbing !
Alexander , Berlin
11/06/2020 17:41
5
0
1

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