Norilsk Road, in the Russian Arctic, became one of the most polluted areas in the world

The smelter has been poisoning rivers, destroying forests and releasing more sulfur dioxide than volcanoes. Now it wants to produce more "green economy".


This article is part of “The Fifth Crime,” an ecocide series published in partnership with Inside Climate News, a nonprofit organization, an independent news agency that combines climate, energy and the environment, and Undark Magazine, a nonprofit organization, digital magazine checking. scientific and social interactions.

It was 2 in the morning and the sun was shining, as it did day and night in mid-July in Norilsk, a Siberian city 200 miles [200 km] north of the Arctic Circle.

Igor Klyushin went to the riverbank where he used to fish with his father to find the gray, dorsal-finned beauty known for its beautiful jumps above the ground. “A very happy fish,” recalls Klyushin. “It enjoys cold, clean, fresh water.”

He doubted that gray would be there that night. In any case, the authorities had long warned that it would not be safe to fish in the Daldykan River.

And besides, he wasn't there to fish. He began filming mudflats flowing down the river from one of the world's largest ore and smelting mines. The modified water represents "Norilsk Nickel's latest natural crime," Klyushin said in a video posted to "Norilchane" - or "Citizens of Norilsk" - a YouTube channel that helps measure. The channel and its Facebook group, with about 8,300 members, have become gathering places for depressed residents of Norilsk, the northernmost city in the world. The city of 176,000 has long been recognized by environmentalists - even the Russian government - as one of the world's most polluted areas, thanks to one business: Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest producer of palladium and high-quality nickel. producer of platinum, cobalt and copper.

Designed for use by prisoners in the Soviet Gulag, Norilsk overcame communism, embraced capitalism, and now aims to increase production to sell much-needed metals for electric car batteries and a clean energy economy. Norilsk Nickel is the world's leading manufacturer of pure Class 1 nickel sought after by automotive industry leaders such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk. The company's ambitions are in line with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the development of the Far North, which he believes could be achieved on an ongoing basis.

But Norilsk Nickel has undermined its vision for the future by damaging the precious space, which has an impact on the rest of the world. The company's pollution has engulfed the desert of dead and dying trees from the taiga, or boreal forest, one of the world's largest carbon sinks. Its polluted water has turned into icy rivers. Its smokers emit high levels of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. And last year, a rusty tank exploded and dumped 6.5 million gallons of diesel fuel into the Kara Sea. It was the largest oil spill in Arctic history. Although Norilsk Nickel insists that no diesel fuel has reached the Arctic Ocean, Russia's state fisheries federation has told Inside Climate News that its tests show that pollution has reached this level.

In September, Norilsk Nickel agreed to negotiate a $ 800 million settlement with a joint fishing agency, known as Rosrybolovstvo, to sue the company this summer for damage to regional water resources.

Norilsk is an example of the kind of systematic and long-term devastation that has caused international action to turn environmental degradation into international crime. The campaign aims to treat "ecocide" in the same way as genocide or crimes against humanity, cases prosecuted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court. The ecocide campaign has drawn attention to the failure of national legislation to stop serious or widespread or long-term damage with international consequences.

Norilsk faces such damage, both as part of a region most vulnerable to climate change and as a city that relies on an industry that has poisoned the earth and water.

Norilsk Nickel is adamant that it can rejuvenate its environment. It paid $ 2 billion for diesel spills last year, the largest environmental fine in the country's history, and has promised to spend more than $ 5 billion on both land pollution and economic and social rehabilitation throughout its Krasnoyarsk Krai region.

"We acknowledge that there are legacy issues related to our business," said a company spokesman with written responses to questions from Inside Climate News, referring to issues remaining from the Soviet era. "We use far-reaching methods to deal with it."

Local government officials are pleased with the Norilsk Nickel program. The city and the area plan to build a hospital, renovate houses and build the Arctic Museum of Modern Art. Krasnoyarsk Krai Gov. Alexander Uss made the proposal to make Norilsk the official Arctic capital of Russia.

But citizens like Klyushin are skeptical, considering the pollution they have seen even after the company has paid its fines.

"When I arrived that night to see Daldykan, my heart sank, and I was broken," said Klyushin, speaking by telephone interpreter two weeks after taking a video of the changed waters in July. "The river red is pulp, and the smell of chemicals is still in my lungs."

The story of Norilsk pollution stems from trees: 5.9 million hectares of dead and dying forest from the Norilsk Nickel compound - a larger scar than New Jersey, washed away in the world's largest forest.

In tree ring samples, scientists have identified a major escalation of sulfur dioxide pollution that began in 1942, when the first nickel melting.