Less than two months after their massive oil spill in the Arctic, Russian company Norilsk Nickel has once again caused environmental devastation with an oil leak. The first spill on May 29, was so extensive that the Russian President Putin declared it a national emergency. This time, the mining company leaked approximately 45 tons of fuel into the ground as well as a nearby lake and stream. The short time between these two spills is reflective of the rising temperatures around the globe, the impacts of which are being felt most strongly in the Arctic. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nornickel claims that the thawing permafrost, previously frozen for millennia, is to blame for these accidents. Still, the company will work with public and private partners to rebalance the ecosystem. Actions to clean up these spills, while necessary, are not enough. More must be done to prevent these accidents that will otherwise become more common amid an increasingly unpredictable climate.
While the local authorities have reported oil leakage into a lake and stream, Nornickel has announced “no threats to life and health of people in the territory,” and promised that the spill has been contained and will be cleaned up as soon as possible. While 45 tons is far less than the 20 000 tons that spilled in the May 29 fuel leak, there is a concern that such accidents are becoming more common. A project director at Greenpeace in Russia, Vladimir Chuprov, expressed this fear: “We are worried that these accidents have begun to occur too often.” According to the CBC, small leaks like this most recent one are ‘a chronic issue’ in Russia’s Arctic and typically are covered up before they receive international attention.
The massive oil spill on May 29 was spreading online via social media before local authorities in Russia were informed, reports the CBC, and prompted President Putin to publicly chastise the company: “If you had changed [the fuel tank] on time, there would not have been this ecological damage.” Additionally, Putin requested $2 billion in damages from Nornickel and signed new legislation that would require companies like Nornickel to put sufficient financial resources towards preventing and eliminating any future spills. Nornickel, while vowing to clean up the accident, has contested the $2 billion fine. According to Russia’s Ecology Minister, “it’s very likely this huge amount will not be paid,” however, “if [Nornickel] refuses to pay big money, they will get an even worse image, not only in Russia but on a global scale.”
The reaction from the Russian government was appropriate, but whether it was an empty gesture to save its public image ahead of the 2021 Arctic Council or will result in greater accountability remains to be seen. Public outcry over oil spills is an incentive for oil companies to take more precaution; however, it may also increase the number of cover-ups that occur. Nornickel should pay the full $2 billion fine, both to show that the company understands the gravity of the spill and to serve as a reminder that accidents like these will not be easily forgiven.
This most recent oil spill of 45 tons only received international coverage for its proximity to the May 29 accident. Otherwise, it may have been covered up and taken care of quickly, given its relatively low amount of fuel spilled. However, this should not be allowed to continue to happen. If international attention and significant damages are needed to make large mining companies adopt more stringent maintenance practices, then any spills, large or small, should be reported. As climate change continues to alter the structure of the land, these practices will become even more critical.
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