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Russia declares emergency after Arctic oil spill

Crews pump out a large diesel spill that turned part of Russia’s Ambarnaya River red.
Crews pump out a large diesel spill that turned part of Russia’s Ambarnaya River red.Y. KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images/AFP via Ge

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia has declared a state of emergency in a region in northern Siberia after a huge oil spill turned a river crimson and threatened to inflict significant damage to the Arctic environment.

More than 20,000 tons of diesel leaked into the Ambarnaya River near the city of Norilsk last Friday, after a fuel tank collapsed at a power plant. Norilsk Nickel, which owns the plant, said in a statement that thawing permafrost had caused one of the tank’s pillars to collapse. The oil leaked more than 7 miles from the site.

The accident is one of the biggest oil spills in modern Russian history, Aleksei Knizhnikov of the environmentalist group WWF Russia said. In a statement, Greenpeace Russia compared the discharge to the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in Alaska in 1989.

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The Russian Investigative Committee opened a criminal inquiry and detained the plant’s manager, Vyacheslav Starostin.

Putin said he had been angered that he had learned of the spill only on Sunday, and, after declaring the state of emergency on Wednesday, denounced company officials in a videoconference that was broadcast live.

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days after the fact?” Putin said. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?”

Norilsk Nickel is the world’s largest producer of platinum and nickel, and the company is no stranger to environmental disasters. It was responsible for a “blood river,” also in Siberia, in 2016, and one of its plants has belched so much sulfur dioxide, a major cause of acid rain, that it is surrounded by a dead zone of tree trunks and mud about twice the size of Rhode Island.

The company, along with the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, dispatched hundreds of personnel to clean up the mess. So far, Norilsk Nickel said, they had managed to gather up only around 340 tons of the oil.

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Special containment booms were installed in the Ambarnaya River in an effort to prevent the spill from entering the nearby Lake Pyasino and after that the Kara Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

Elena Panova, the Russian deputy minister of national resources and the environment, said Thursday during an online news conference that it would take at least 10 years for the local ecosystem to recover.