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Major Petroleum Spill Spreads Toward Arctic Ocean in Russia’s North – The New York Times

Europe|Major Petroleum Spill Spreads Toward Arctic Ocean in Russia’s North

A diesel fuel spill in Russia’s far north has released about half as much petroleum into the environment as the Exxon Valdez tanker accident in Alaska. The fuel is flowing toward the Arctic Ocean.

Credit…Planet Labs Inc./Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Andrew E. Kramer

MOSCOW — Floating barriers hastily laid across rivers in the far north of Russia have failed to contain a major diesel fuel spill that has now spread to a lake near the Arctic Ocean and is threatening a nature reserve, a regional governor said Tuesday.

The environmental disaster is unfolding far to the north of the Arctic Circle, in a marshy wilderness near the isolated mining city of Norilsk.

Diesel fuel spilled from a tank that burst last week after settling into permafrost that had stood firm for years but gave way during a warm spring, Russian officials said.

The accident, which environmental groups have compared to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska in 1989, has highlighted the risks of industrial development in the thawing Arctic, where climate change is warming the environment at a rate about twice as fast as the rest of the Earth.

The spill released about 150,000 barrels of diesel into a river, compared with about 260,000 barrels of crude oil released into Prince William Sound during the Exxon tanker accident, a touchstone for environmental damage from petroleum spills.

The diesel has been seeping into the marshy riverbanks and spreading as an iridescent sheen on the surface of rivers. A frantic effort to lay booms, or floating barriers, across the rivers has not contained the spill.

By Tuesday, fuel was found in a 43-mile-long finger lake called Pyasino, which stretches toward the Arctic Ocean, Aleksandr Uss, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region, told local media.


Credit…Vasiliy Ryabinin, via Associated Press

“It’s a marvelous lake,” he said. “Naturally, there are fish there and a good natural environment. But it’s impossible to predict how it will hold up now.”

Mr. Uss said the cleanup would now focus on containing the diesel fuel in the lake by preventing it from flowing into the Pyasino River, which drains through a nature reserve into the Arctic Ocean. He said, “I think this will be possible.”

President Vladimir V. Putin last week declared a state of emergency in the remote region in northern Siberia after it became clear the spill, which occurred on May 29, would not be contained near the site of the ruptured tank.

The accident is one of the largest petroleum spills in modern Russian history, according to WWF, a conservation group. “We are talking about dead fish, polluted plumage of birds and poisoned animals,” Sergey Verkhovets, coordinator of Arctic projects for WWF Russia, said in a statement.

Prosecutors arrested the manager of the power plant that operated the tank. That plant provides electricity to one of the largest industrial developments above the Arctic Circle, the Norilsk Nickel mines and metal smelters.

The sprawl of factories, originally built by slave laborers in the gulag under Stalin, produces about a fifth of the world’s nickel, and half of the world’s palladium, a precious metal used in pollution-controlling catalytic converters on car exhaust pipes.

The factories are significant polluters of the Arctic environment. Smokestacks belch so much sulfur dioxide, a cause of acid rain, that the town is surrounded by a dead zone of tree trunks and mud about twice the size of Rhode Island. The company has dispatched hundreds of workers to help clean the spilled diesel.

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