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Norilsk Nickel Plant in Nikel (Source: Creative Commons)

Norilsk Nickel Plant in Nikel (Source: Creative Commons)

Russia continues to advance its military presence in the arctic region as it seeks to capitalize on the race for natural resources, securing its presence in the next ice-cold war for oil and new trade routes now opening due to polar melting. Yet one of its most prominent – and most toxic – northern industries has promised to cut its emissions by two-thirds, starting this year.

In a 2007 report, deputy director general Tav Morgan of the Russian nickel-mining giant, Norilsk Nickel, told the BBC that the company was looking to radically reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, starting in 2015. According to reports, new loans requested by the company will be put to achieving this goal.

Despite the economic sanctions placed on Russia by the U.S. and European Union following the gunning down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-17 by Russian-backed rebels in July 2014, the company that essentially owns the city of Norilsk will be receiving a $1 billion loan from Russia’s VTB Bank and Sweden’s Nordea Bank and another $250 million from Italy’s UniCredit Bank. Nickel is expected to be in global shortage this year as Indonesia announced a ban on nickel exports earlier in 2014, and Norilsk is looking to meet demands.

Norilsk is the main operations hub for Norilsk Nickel (Nordik), the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. Norilsk produces one-fifth of the world’s nickel, one of Russia’s most vital exports. Palladium, also produced from Norilsk mines, is used to make emissions-capping catalytic converters, used in hybrid cars to reduce exhaust.

Established in the 1930s as a labor camp for Soviet dissidents and other political prisoners, Norilsk has a dark history of prison enslavement for nickel extraction.  According to some estimates, one percent of global sulphur dioxide emissions come from Norilsk—10,000 tons per day of ore is extracted by miners whose average working life in the mine is between 20 and 30 years.

Now with a population of about 176,000, it has some of the worst air quality in the world, it is surrounded by 1.2 acres of dead forest (a 20 mile radius) and it is amongst the most polluted cities in the worldaccording to the Blacksmith Institute.

False-color image of Norilsk, Siberia, Russia. Shades of pink and purple indicate bare ground: rock formations, cities, quarries, and places where pollution has damaged the vegetation. Brilliant greens show predominately healthy mixed tundra-boreal forest. The deep and pale pinks downwind of the city, as well as the deep purple in the hillsides immediately outside Noril’sk, are moderately to severely damaged ecosystems. (Source: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, using data obtained from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility)

False-color image of Norilsk, Siberia, Russia. Shades of pink and purple indicate bare ground: rock formations, cities, quarries, and places where pollution has damaged the vegetation. Brilliant greens show predominately healthy mixed tundra-boreal forest. The deep and pale pinks downwind of the city, as well as the deep purple in the hillsides immediately outside Noril’sk, are moderately to severely damaged ecosystems. (Source: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, using data obtained from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility)

In the global race for dominance over natural resources, Norilsk has remained crucial to Russia’s tactical position on natural resource exports. It is also to set up a military base in Norilsk, to guard the previously mentioned contentious arctic territory, in addition to the current nickel industry.

The Russian state has maintained a commitment to cleaner energy with regards to Norilsk according to statements from President Vladimir Putin. However, it is also unclear what cleaner technology might mean to the Russian government, who had previously requested that “planet hacking,” or geo-engineering, might be included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – which was denounced by over 160 civil society, indigenous and environmental organizations in 2013.

Since opening up and shedding its restrictive visitation as one of Russia’s last remaining “closed cities,” Norilsk has been reported as an unexpected haven of the north, with high wages and unexpected amenities such as this nightclub. Yet the population of Norilsk suffers a wide variety of health deficiencies and the average life expectancy of the workers is ten years shorter than the national average. Residents suffer from numerous respiratory diseases, and the frequency of cancer, blood and skin disorders is high. Only four percent of adults in the city are healthy.

Thin attempts have been made to relocate the people of Norilsk, under the logical auspices that maintaining such a community in the isolated polar region isn’t good for anyone, neither for the business that needs to supply infrastructure nor for the people poisoned by proximity to it. Yet relocation efforts have failed, primarily because leaving the city is not feasible for workers. Wages are relatively high and property values extremely low, meaning that many are stuck living, working, spending and reproducing for the mining company, pouring their wages back into company-owned facilities.

For the people of Norilsk, dumped into the northern tundra by Soviet totalitarianism nearly a century ago, they now are forced to remain by economic restraints—a prison of a different kind.

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