The National Interest (USA): why Russia is turning the Arctic region into an economic disaster

Spill 20 thousand tons of diesel fuel, which occurred last week in the Russian city of Norilsk, located above the Arctic circle, is one of the greatest environmental, humanitarian and economic catastrophes, with which Russia will not be able to cope on their own. This disaster has two sides, because one of the storage tanks of diesel fuel were damaged due to the melting of the permafrost soil, which in itself is a separate issue. Diesel fuel flowed for a distance of 12 kilometers from the place of storage, resulting in a local river acquired blood-red hue. Although this spill of diesel fuel can not compare with the catastrophe of 1989, when there was a major oil spill from the tanker “Exxon Valdez” (Exxon Valdez), he concealed the true reason causing far more anxiety. And because it involves large-scale long-term environmental problems of the Arctic region, it inevitably becomes a transnational political issue.

Of course, the President of Russia Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency at the Federal level, ordered the arrest of the Director of the Norilsk CHP and expressed a lot of discontent. However, this situation is not surprising. Environmental disaster in the Russian Arctic has happened before: in 2016, following the release of the reagent, resulting from the fit of a slurry pipeline in the same plant, the contamination had affected other river. Norilsk is the worst of the worst cities, and the Russian authorities have officially recognized it as the most environmentally polluted city in the country. It was built in Soviet times, the plants annually emit 2 million tons of gas, and according to NASA, this city with a population of just 180 thousand people accounted for 1% of global sulfur dioxide emissions. In the surrounding territories, whose area is twice the area of Rhode island, trees do not grow at all — because of the constant acid rain and smog. The average life expectancy of residents of Norilsk is ten years less than in Moscow, and the incidence of cancer was two times higher than the average level in Russia. Norilsk was a zone of ecological disaster long before the permafrost ground beneath him began to melt.

Norilsk is one of the many Russian cities, located in the Arctic zone, which was on the front line of climate change. Other cities such as Vorkuta, Tiksi, Magadan and Murmansk, also suffer from damage to the infrastructure, a pronounced reduction in population, environmental pollution, lack of investment in infrastructure and isolation, as the locals say, from “mainland” Russia, as well as from a lack of hope that the “Soviet” attitude to the so-called “company towns” will ever change.

Norilsk is a good example of all the problems facing the Russian Arctic. It is a region very rich in resources, which is characterized by the world’s largest deposits of Nickel and palladium, as well as large deposits of copper, cobalt, platinum and coal. However, this area is the heritage of the Gulag, built in the 1930-ies. Norilsk is also a “closed” city — an echo of the Soviet era, when dozens of cities across the country were considered strategically important due to the fact that there were military bases or industrial enterprise. Today to explain the “closeness” of this city is quite difficult, especially when you consider that the only enterprise of the city, Norilsk Nickel was privatized in 1997.

Norilsk, like many other towns in the Arctic circle, was constructed on permafrost soil. Almost 60% of the buildings in Norilsk are gradually destroyed due to the melting and softening of the permafrost soil, and 10% of the buildings have already been deemed uninhabitable. In this sense, Norilsk is not alone. In the Arctic zone of Russia, the annual economic damage from destruction of buildings caused by thawing permafrost, is estimated at $ 2 billion. Even when environmental damage from the spill of diesel fuel will be eliminated, a much more serious threat from thawing permafrost — the threat that entails a lot much more complex problems will persist.

Europeans are already used to deal with the environmental problems caused by Russia. Since 1990-ies Norway without fanfare, helping Russia safely dispose of spent nuclear fuel from built in the Soviet era submarines, using its own technology to develop a plan for the disposal of 22 thousand spent fuel elements of a nuclear reactor and thousands of cubic meters of solid and liquid radioactive wastes, some of which are stored under the open sky in rusty containers. Italy paid a special vessel. This year, when Russia announced the shortage of funds, Norway has started to pay the bills, trying to convince himself that this will allow her to better study the process of final elimination of hazardous waste by rail are transported to the processing plant to the East of the Ural mountains.

It is likely that Russia prefers to pay attention exclusively on optimistic economic Outlook, which opens it in front of melting glaciers in the Arctic ocean, and to develop the Northern sea route and the LNG terminals, the construction of which is financed mostly by China. In addition, she tries to put the buildup of its military capabilities in the Arctic in the triumphal Patriotic light. Why is it necessary to solve complex environmental problems, if you can easily refute the legend of the strong “returning to Russia”? And why do I need to help a country that is rude and hostile?

The answer to these questions boils down to the fact that environmental problems often transcend the boundaries of one state and that their decision depends on the actions of the community of Arctic countries, which includes United States. Such cooperation has precedents. The disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 has forced the international community to create a forum that allowed the countries together to solve the environmental problems of the Arctic region. Finland, alarmed over the damage that its Northern forests, attacked Soviet steel mills, has assumed the role of leader. The forum is gradually transformed into the Arctic Council is a unique body, which includes all eight Arctic States, including Russia.

The Arctic Council is one of the few places, which did not affect the sanctions imposed against Russia after the annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. There are also smaller and more specialized groups dealing with Arctic issues, and another environmental disaster points to the need to keep the channels of communication in times of crises. The next spill could damage the banks, which will no longer belong to Russia. Undoubtedly, you need to debug all mechanisms up to the occurrence of the next crisis.

The main lessons, of course, must learn Russian. To cope with the consequences of a spill of diesel fuel in Norilsk will be very difficult. River, and where was this fuel, small, and around there are no roads, which would help workers to arrive in the region to help — due to a small population of this district, and because of the entrenched energy status of “closed” cities. The whole world (and Putin himself) learned about the spill from the social networks after the company’s management attempted to deal with it on their own. In Russia have long time to increase the level of transparency, corporate responsibility and attention to the fragile ecosystems of the Arctic.

Melting glaciers in the Arctic ocean and melting permafrost in the Arctic zone give rise to issues that are common to all Arctic States. Russia is a country which has the biggest population in the Arctic zone, which has the worst infrastructure in the region and which will lose more than all others due to climate warming. Almost half of the Russian oil and gas fields are located in areas where the gradual melting of the permafrost soil will cause enormous damage to buildings, roads and industry. Now one thing is clear: this spill will not be the last in a series of environmental disasters in the Russian Arctic zone.

Mary Thompson-Jones is a Professor and chair of the program “Women in National Security and Diplomacy” (“Women in the sphere of national security and diplomacy) at the naval war College, USA.