Russia sees melting permafrost behind Arctic fuel spill

An unprecedented fuel spill that has polluted huge stretches of Arctic rivers was caused by melting permafrost, Russian officials said Friday, ordering a review of infrastructure in vulnerable zones.

The spill — which has coloured remote tundra waterways with bright red patches visible from space — has highlighted the danger of climate change for Russia as areas locked by permafrost for centuries thaw amid warmer temperatures.

News of the cause of the accident came amid a huge cleanup effort outside the Arctic city of Norilsk which President Vladimir Putin said should be bankrolled by metals giant Norilsk Nickel.

A national-level state of emergency was announced after 21,000 tonnes of diesel fuel spilled from a reservoir that collapsed last Friday.

Norilsk Nickel owns the reservoir through a subsidiary.

Three criminal probes have been launched, and Russia’s prosecutor general’s office said in a statement that preliminary findings indicate sagging ground as the reason for the disaster.

“To prevent a similar situation on especially hazardous structures on territories prone to melting of permafrost,” the prosecutor general has “ordered a comprehensive review of such objects,” it said.

Norilsk, one of the country’s biggest industrial centres, lies above the Arctic circle and Norilsk Nickel had already said it suspects permafrost thawing.

Other factors may be at play too: the country’s technical safety watchdog told TASS news agency that since 2016, it has been unable to check the condition of the 35-year-old reservoir, because the company said it was under repairs.

The metals giant tried to contain the damage on its own for two days before specialists were called in from companies and agencies across Russia and managed to stop the spill from spreading further.

Speaking with officials at the site by video call, Putin told Norilsk Nickel chief Vladimir Potanin he expected the company to pay for a comprehensive cleanup.

“It’s necessary to carry out all the compensatory measures to restore biodiversity and the environment,” he said.

Potanin estimated that the operations would cost about 10 billion rubles ($146 million), on top of any fines.

“We will spend whatever is needed,” said Potanin. “We will return the ecosystem back to normal.”

Russia’s environmental watchdog Svetlana Radionova said the damage was being calculated, and called the accident “unprecedented in scope”.