MOSCOW | Russia was stepping up efforts on Thursday to clean up the huge amount of oil spilled in an Arctic river, environmentalists say the worst such incident in the region, while a local official was detained.
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Vladimir Putin intervened personally in the crisis on Wednesday, declaring a state of emergency and calling to order local officials. Additional cleaning crews were deployed on Thursday.
As part of the investigation, Viatcheslav Starostine, an employee of the thermal power plant which belongs to NTEK, a subsidiary of the metal giant Norilsk Nickel, has been placed in pre-trial detention for one month, a city court in Norilsk told the TASS agency.
One of the plant’s diesel tanks collapsed last week, causing more than 20,000 tonnes of oil to leak.
According to the Russian Marine Emergency Service, which specializes in these accidents, the reinforcements deployed in this very isolated and marshy area of the Far North are facing a complex challenge.
“There has never been such a leak in the Arctic before. You have to work very quickly because the fuel is dissolving in water, “spokesman Andrei Malov told AFP.
The environmental organization Greenpeace Russia says the accident “is the first on this scale in the Arctic” and compared it to the sinking of the Exxon Valdez off Alaska in 1989.
The Ambarnaïa river, affected by this leak, joins Lake Piassino, itself at the origin of a river of the same name which is essential for the Taimyr peninsula, a strategic region where Russia extracts precious metals, coal and hydrocarbons.
According to Malov, six containment ramps have been placed on the river to block the flow of pollution to the lake, while fuel is pumped to the surface.
“It is difficult terrain and everything that has to be transported can only be transported by all-terrain vehicles”, he stressed, the fuel collected must be stored on site until winter in special containers.
The difficulty of the operation prompted some officials to offer to burn fuel on the spot, which the Russian environmental environmental agency has ruled out.
Russian Fisheries Agency spokesman Dmitri Klokov told the TASS news agency that it would take “decades” to restore the ecosystem.
“The scale of this disaster is underestimated,” he said, adding that most of the fuel had flowed to the bottom of the river and already reached the lake.
Those responsible for the plant had been lectured on Wednesday for being slow to respond. The governor of the region admitted that he only learned of the real extent of the leak two days later, via social media.
Three criminal investigations have been opened. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, 180,000 square meters of land were also polluted before the oil reached the river.
Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest producer of nickel, said the tank was damaged when the pillars that supported it “for 30” started to sink. This phenomenon could be linked to the melting of the permafrost caused by climate change.
But WWF NGO expert Alexei Knijnikov said Russian law forces any such tank to be surrounded by a containment structure that would have prevented the accident. “Much of the responsibility rests with the company,” he added.