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  • Dora Ollivier Alarcon

The most polluted city on earth

Far up north in Russia, between the West Siberian Plain and the central Siberian Plateau at the foot of the Putorania Mountains, the largest city built on permafrost (permanent frost of the underground) and the largest city inside the Arctic circle is located.

This is one of the coldest cities in the world. It is far colder than Murmansk (another large city in arctic Russia) although it is located at the same latitude. In winter, the average temperature drops to -31 degrees. The days are characterized by frost and violent wind gusts. Nine months

a year, winter rules. Snowstorms batter the city 130 days a year. But the summers are mild with an average temperature of 14 degrees Celsius.

Since the city is located north of arctic circle, citizens fight through polar nights, which can be 45-50 days long. For most of the population this feels suffocating. In an interview, the photographer Elena Chernyshova quoted „One or two hours we have a twilight and have a feeling that the sun will arrive, but it never does”. She also admitted that it can be hard psychologically and that it almost feels depressing.

Norilsk is an isolated city. The closest big city is 1600km away. From Norilsk there are 2,400km to the North pole. No railways or train networks connect the city to Moscow, which is 2,880km away. Only a small road network was built leading to Dudinka (a port). That is also how the food supplies get imported, since there is no agriculture in Norilsk. The food comes by boat to Dudinka, on the Arctic Ocean or the nearby river called Yenisei. The only way to come to the city really, is by plane. the airport is located West of the city. It is only used occasionally during the year. Furthermore, not everyone has access to Norilsk. You need to obtain special permission to visit. The city is closed to visitors. According to 2021 census, the permanent population in Norilsk is 182,701. Including the temporary inhabitants, the number rises to 220,000. Although the city is closed, Norilsk has diverse ethnic populations. Mostly Russians, but also Ukrainians, Azerbaijanis, Tatars, Bashkirs, Nogais, Lezgins, Kazakhs and many more.

This isolated city is one of the newest in Russia having been given the city status in 1953. The only reason it exists, is because of all the minerals in the ground. One of the most important ones is Nickel, a metal essential to the world economy. With its distinctive silvery-white and shiny appearance, nickel can be forged very easily, like iron. It mostly is used to plate other metals and protect them from corrosion. This metal is desirable, costly, and essential for car batteries and other energy transition equipment. 1 ton of nickel costs 20,000 USD and one ton of iron 120 USD.

To process this raw mineral, something called sulfur dioxide is let out in the atmosphere and pollutes the nature. No plants have a chance to grow in Norilsk, and animals die. This is why Norilsk is one of the most polluted cities in the world. 80% of Norilsk’s population works for NorilskNickel (the company running the nickel plants and mines).

It was already known in the Bronze age, that Norilsk has mineral-rich grounds. Primitive equipment for smelting and casting was found near a Lake close to Norilsk. In the 16th and 17th century copper from Norilsk’s deposits was used by the inhabitants of Mangazeya (Russian trade colony that lived beyond the arctic circle). Many platinoids as well as copper was found.

Expeditions to Norilsk continued from 1919 to 1926, when the deposits of the metals were confirmed. In one of the expeditions in 1921 a cabin was built and is now considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Norilsk and is viewed as a historical monument. One year before the construction of the cabin, in 1920, Norilsk was founded. That was when Gulag prisoners (people the state imprisoned for talking against the Soviet Union) began the construction of the mining plants. Unknown amounts of prisoners died because of forced labour, starvation and cold (especially in WW2 when food was scarce). Prisoner kept on dying until 1979, until there was an agreement on the freedom of the prisoners. Later, they began living in Norilsk.

Further deposits of copper and nickel ores were found in 1966 and contributed to the city’s boom.

A new complex plant was built 15 km away from Norilsk to process raw minerals from the deposits. Finnish companies assisted these works, which led to an expat community for a couple of years in Norilsk.

Norilsk mines are still a dangerous place to work. In 2005, 2.4 accidents occurred per 1000 workers. Now the company claims to have reduced injury frequency rate nearly 60% since 2013. But there are not only bad numbers in the injury rates, also in the environment pollution. The smelting companies poison rivers, kill forests and blench out more Sulfur dioxide than active volcanoes.

Since the ore in Norilsk is rich in Sulfur connections, when the plants are processed, big quantities of Sulfur are set free. Usually this is seen in the form of smoke coming out of the chimneys in the factories. It is said that Norilsk alone causes 1% of the worldwide Sulfur dioxide pollution. This gas is poisonous. When it rains, the water gets mixed with the gas and turns into acid rain, which damages the vegetation. A lot of the population also dies of lung-cancer, because of the air pollution. People don’t notice when they take in the substance through food, water, or the air.

The life expectancy is 10 years less than the Russian life expectancies. About 62 years.

Around 500 million ha of the taiga and the boreal forests around the city have been destroyed. Daily spills of fuel are purposely being let out in the nature (because they are not needed) and destroy the ecosystem.

And the environmental disaster continues with one of the major oil spills ever:

On the 29th of May 2020 Krasnoyarsk Krai’s (near Norilsk) fuel storage tank at Norilsk-Taimyr Energy’s Thermal powerplant No.3 (owned by NorilskNickle) failed. It flooded local rivers with 17,500 tons of diesel oil. This problem was only declared an emergency in June by the President Vladimir Putin. In Russian history this was the second largest oil spill. Apparently, there were holes in the tank bottom caused by corrosion. In 2014 the company had been asked to clean the outer surface of the wall from rust and restore the anticorrosion layer, but this advice was ignored. Nobody tried to avoid the failure. When the fuel hit the water, the rivers turned red. The clean-up was difficult since there are no roads, and the river is too shallow for the boats to go through. NorilskNickel had to pay everything. The state said that the pollution never reached the Arctic Ocean, that the oil was held up with booms. But drifting ice broke the booms and the spill reached Lake Pyasino, which then opened to the Arctic Ocean.

After many years of polluting without precaution, Norilsk has finally decided to modernize the Production. The strategy entails long-term goals to produce metals essential for greener economy, capital investments and lower environmental footprint in the region where NorilskNickel works.

Hopefully in a few years Norilsk will have achieved to gain slightly more control on the environmental situation, so the ecosystem can germinate in natural form again. But it will take centuries if not longer.


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