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Vladimir Putin has announced a state of emergency in the region around the Arctic city of Norilsk after a massive fuel leak left two rivers with a bloody red tinge.
At least 21,000 tonnes of diesel is understood to have leaked from a local power plant on Friday. Initial reports suggested a car had crashed into one of the plant’s storage towers, but it transpired the tower first decompressed and then ruptured, resulting in a fire and further spillage. Remarkably, news of the accident took several days to reach the authorities.
Over two increasingly desperate days, officials in the power plant tried to deal with the problem themselves. By the time things were eventually referred higher up the chain, and Mr Putin was informed, over 100,000sq metres of land had been affected.
Russia’s longtime leader made his displeasure known on Wednesday afternoon in a video audience with Aleksandr Uss, the local governor. In a short dispatch, Mr Uss insisted he too had only found out about the disaster from social media, but promised to resolve the situation within two weeks. ”Report over,” the official concluded.
“What do you mean, report over?” said Mr Putin, cutting off his governor as he attempted to respond. “What are you going to do about it? You’re the governor aren’t you?”
Later on Wednesday, the general prosecutor’s office announced it would be opening a criminal case on two counts: damage to land and water and violating environmental protection rules. The manager of the power plant has also been arrested.
Ivan Blokov, campaign director at Greenpeace Russia, described the situation in Norilsk as “very, very bad”, and compared it to some of the world’s worst fuel leaks.
“We are talking about half the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989,” he said.
Norilsk, an isolated nickel-mining hub in the far north of Russia, is already well known for its environmental problems. Until very recently the city of 180,000 inhabitants was considered the most polluted in Russia. Dirty water and foul rivers are certainly not a new phenomenon. But the scale of this leak is set to leave another scar on the local environment for many generations to come.
“It will take a lot of effort and several billions of roubles to clean things up,” Mr Blokov said. “The rivers will be polluted and you can expect anything to grow in the contaminated areas for decades, perhaps hundreds of years.”
Officials have yet to present a clear plan about how they intend to deal with the problem. In his painful conversation with Mr Putin, governor Uss said authorities might be left with no choice but to burn the fuel – an idea with obvious and concerning climatic consequences. He admitted the idea had not been tried before and there was no guarantee of success.
More senior government officials later played down such a prospect. Dmitry Kobylkin, Russia’s resources and environment minister, said he “didn’t understand” the logic of burning huge quantities of fuel in an Arctic region: “A huge fire over a huge area, with a huge quantity of fuel is a huge problem.”
Greenpeace’s Blokov said Mr Uss’s alarming comments demonstrated the extent to which the problem had got out of hand. The immediate task was stopping the leak, he added, only then could emergency teams think about next steps. In an “ideal world”, that would be to pump and separate the contaminated water, but how possible that was “no one knows”.
”It’s one of those cases that there is no obvious good solution,” he said.