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Space images confirm that Nornickel dumps industrial waste into rivers regularly

26 june 2020
Moscow, June 26. At the meeting of the Public Council under the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), WWF-Russia presented satellite images proving that Norilsk Nickel regularly dumps industrial waste into rivers near Norilsk. To ecologists’ opinion, the systematic withholding of information about accidents and incidents is the main reason why such violations are widespread in Russia

WWF-Russia calls for the creation of a special interdepartmental commission to solve the problem. Obviously, it is impossible to effectively eliminate a spill, emission, or release of waste without understanding its scale and dynamics. The emergency near Norilsk has demonstrated how the withholding of information can prevent the necessary measures from being taken on time.

The organisation was only made aware of the Norilsk incident on May 31, through a video posted by local residents on social media rather than through the company's website or other official sources. Among other measures taken upon learning about the accident, WWF-Russia started closely monitoring the situation through the use of satellite imagery. For the entire duration of the spill response work, the Sentinel-2 satellite has been providing WWF-Russia with information on the state of the aquatic system in the spill area. Russian remote sensing data was only made publicly available six days later. "To ensure a timely response to major natural and man-made emergencies in Russia, it is necessary to create a system of 3–4 Sentinel-class spacecraft with a spatial resolution of 5–10 m (approx. 15–30 ft) that would regularly take images of the territory of Russia, updating the information with high frequency and providing open access to the sensing data," emphasizes in his report Aleksey Knizhnikov, Head of the Program for the Business Environmental Responsibility at WWF-Russia.

While working with the satellite images, WWF-Russia has discovered evidence of numerous releases of waste into water bodies near the spill site, dating as far back as 2017. For example, violations in the design and construction of the waste disposal facility of the Talnakh enrichment plant have caused it to release contaminated water into the Tomulakh river and into the soil near the Oktyabrsky mine throughout the period from June 2017 to July 2019.

"The scale of water pollution in the area of Norilsk Nickel operations in Taimyr is so severe that it can easily be seen from outer space. Obviously, at the site itself, the extent of the damage is visible even to the naked eye," comments Aleksey Knizhnikov. "It is not clear why, after all this time, neither the company management nor the supervisory authorities have made any adequate attempts to fix the situation.  We hope that now, with the information received from the satellite, both the company and the supervisory authorities will take immediate steps to prevent the plants of Norilsk Nickel from releasing industrial waste into the environment."

The satellite images handed to the members of the Public Council under Rosprirodnadzor by Aleksey Knizhnikov show that the majority of the waste from the Norilsk Nickel plants ends up in the Schuchya river. The pollution is caused by the waste coming from the industrial area in the vicinity of the Norilsk tailing pond No. 1, Lebyazhye tailing pond, and other water bodies. 

A large portion of the Kupets river (the left tributary of the Schuchya river) is contaminated by waste from the settling tanks of the Nadezhda metallurgical plant.

The leakage of the plant's slurry pipeline is the main source of pollution of the Daldykan river (a tributary of the Ambarnaya river). Images dated 2018 show attempts to embank the leakage areas; however, the lowering of the topography has contributed to further runoff of contaminated water into the Daldykan river.

WWF-Russia is convinced that, besides the creation of a special interdepartmental commission and providing most recent information from Russian satellites, there is a number of other solutions that must be taken by a wide range of parties in order to successfully solve the problem near Norilsk and prevent similar situations from happening in the future: 

1.      It is necessary to update the legislation in terms of introducing stricter penalties for withholding information on oil spills.

2.      It is necessary to develop and adopt regulations ensuring public access to corporate Oil Spill Response Plans.

3.      It is important to introduce regulations requiring Operations Management Headquarters to submit daily reports on the response to emergency oil spills in public areas.

4.      It is necessary to assist the timely implementation of a comprehensive hydrochemical and hydrobiological monitoring program over the entire area of the water bodies affected by the accident as far as the mouth of the Pyasina river.