Pollution Problems in Norilsk

Oct 10, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in April 2012]

Many areas in Siberia have seen extreme ecological degradation. My forthcoming posts will discuss environmental issues in the Chelyabinsk area in the extreme southwestern corner of Siberia, on Sakhalin Island in the Far East, and in the forested southern part of the Russian Far East. But it is another Siberian locale, the city of Norilsk in the north-central part of the region, has been deemed the most polluted place in Russia for 19 years running. By some measures, Norilsk may be the most environmentally degraded city in the world.


Located in Krasnoyarsk Krai between the Yenisei River and the Taymyr Peninsula, Norilsk is the northernmost city in Siberia and one of only three large cities in the continuous permafrost zone (along with Yakutsk, the capital of Republic of Sakha, and Vorkuta, a coal-mining town in the Komi Republic, west of the Ural Mountains).* With over 175,000 inhabitants, Norilsk is the world’s second largest city north of the Arctic Circle (after Murmansk in European Russia, pop. 307,664). Due to its northern location, Norilsk has an extremely harsh climate: the average February temperature is about −35°C (−31°F), and even in July the average temperature is only about +12°C (54°F). The year-round average  is −13°C (9°F), and the lowest temperature ever recorded is −58°C (−72°F). The Norilsk area is covered with snow for 250-270 days a year, with snow storms occurring on 110-130 days. The polar night, when Norilsk inhabitants do not see the sun at all, lasts from December through mid-January (correspondingly, in the summer the sun does not set for six weeks).


The first settlement in this area dates to the late 1920s, but the official date of Norilsk’s founding is 1935, when the Norilsk mining-metallurgic complex was established to exploit the nickel deposits of Norilsk-Talnakh, the largest nickel-copper-palladium deposits in the world, estimated at over 1.8 billion tons in 2008. From that time to this day, mining and smelting are the city’s major economic activities. In order to serve these industries, the first Arctic railroad in the world was opened in 1937 –  a short line from Norilsk to Dudinka, a port in the lower reaches of the Yenisei River, accessible to seagoing ships. In 1939 Norilsk was granted the urban-type settlement status (in Russian, posëlok gorodskogo tipa), and in 1953 it gained official town status.


As elsewhere in Soviet Siberia, the exploitation of natural resources relied heavily on the exploitation of forced labor by the NKVD-run Norillag system of Gulag labor camps, which existed from June 25, 1935 to August 22, 1956. As in the Magadan-Kolyma region, the Gulag administration was initially responsible for the exploration of natural resources and the associated industrial construction projects, but its activities were gradually extended into virtually all economic and administrative functions in the region, from fishing to “reconstruction of the house where Comrade Stalin lived in exile” (Stalin’s exile to Turukhansk Krai will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post). In the first year of the camp’s existence, it imprisoned 1,200 people, but by the beginning of the Great Purge in 1937, the number rose to over 9,000. At the peak of Norillag’s expansion in 1951, it is said to have housed 72,500 prisoners. According to the estimates of the civil rights organization Memorial, the number of Norillag prisoners over the 21-year history of the camp is around 400,000, about three quarters of whom were political prisoners. Nearly 17,000 inmates are said to have died from overwork, starvation, and intense cold. As in other Gulag camps, fatalities were especially high during the war years of 1942–1944 when food supplies were particularly scarce.

After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, many Soviet citizens expected a release of all political prisoners, but in actuality only common criminals and people sentenced to five years or less were released. Disappointment and anger led to a number of prisoner revolts in the summer 1953, the first one occurring in Norilsk (other revolts took place in Vorkuta and Kengir). Amazingly, the prisoners of Norilsk held out against the authorities for almost two months. The initial inquest by the Ministry of Internal Affairs classified the event as “an anti-Soviet armed counter-revolutionary uprising”, but since the inmates had no weapons, the Soviet court had to use a different formulation: “mass insubordination of the inmates to the camp administration”. The actions of the inmates included a strike that lasted 69 days, letters to the government, and hunger strikes. The NKVD used all means at its disposal to quash this nonviolent uprising: elite NKVD troops, army units, tanks, and even chemicals weapons were deployed. Documents revealed that over 100 people were killed and more than 250 were wounded. Some witnesses reported that unarmed prisoners were shot in the back; others were evidently run over by tanks.

Though no longer relying on forced labor, mining operations in Norilsk continue. Today, the mines and processing facilities are run by MMC Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading producer of nickel and palladium, also active in platinum, copper, and cobalt extraction. Norilsk’s nickel production in 2008 amounted to 299,700 metric tons, and its copper production came in at 419,000 metric tons. The company, unsurprisingly, is the largest employer in the area. The key shareholder in Norilsk Nickel is Interros Holding Company, founded by Mikhail Prokhorov and Vladimir Potanin. In 2001, Norilsk was decreed a closed city for foreigners (except citizens of Belarus), one of the 42 publicly acknowledged closed cities in Russia. It took a team of BBC investigative reporters more than two months to get permission from the Russian authorities to travel to Norilsk in 2007. In the past, Norilsk was classified as a strategic region due to the ring of intercontinental ballistic missile silos nestled in the nearby Putoran Mountains, but today the secrecy is due to the sensitive nature of the nickel-platinum-palladium-copper industry, as well as to the city’s extraordinary level of pollution.

Due to the intense mining and smelting, Norilsk is one of the ten most polluted cities in the world, according to a 2007 report from an international non-for-profit organization Blacksmith Institute. The toxic cocktail found in the air includes both particulates (such as radioisotopes strontium-90 and caesium-137 and metals: nickel, copper, cobalt, lead, and selenium) and gases (such as nitrogen and carbon oxides, sulfur dioxide, phenols, and hydrogen sulfide). Blacksmith Institute estimates that four million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium, and zinc are released into the air every year. By some estimates, 1% of the entire global emission of sulfur dioxide originates in Norilsk. The smelting itself results in smog and acid rain that spreads across an area the size Germany, according to Greenpeace Russia. Heavy metal pollution in the area is so severe that the soil itself can be mined for platinum and palladium. Pollutant concentration levels of open water reservoirs near industrial plants greatly exceed allowed maximums.


The false-color image on the left (from NASA’s Earth Observatory website) shows data collected by Landsat 7’s Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus (ETM+) instrument on August 9, 2001. Shades of pink and purple indicate bare ground: rock formations, cities, quarries, and places where pollution has destroyed the vegetation. Vibrant greens show predominately healthy tundra and boreal forests; water appears in shades of blue. The Norilskaya River cuts through the scene, and the forest-tundra terrain on either side is riddled with small “pothole” lakes. Blue-white plumes of smoke (just left of image center) drift southeastward from smokestacks in Norilsk. The deep and pale pinks downwind of the city, as well as the deep purple in the hillsides immediately outside Norilsk, indicate moderately to severely damaged ecosystems. To the northeast of the river, the environment appears healthier. A large coal quarry, providing one of the sources of electricity in Norilsk, appears as a purple patch south of the city of Kaierkan, now incorporated into Norilsk.

The environmental degradation of the Norilsk area stretches back over decades, but despite Norilsk Nickel’s investments in modernization and environmental protection, the ecological situation in the area has seen little improvement. In 2004, Mikhail Prokhorov, then head of Norilsk Nickel, claimed that the company would resolve most of its environmental problems within 5-6 years, but this timeline keeps moving forward. In 2006 the company invested over US$ 5 million to maintain and overhaul its dust and gas recovery and removal systems; additional monies were invested into its air pollution prevention plan. However, both official statistics and reports of local environmental experts show that emissions remain extremely high. In fact, levels of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, phenol, formaldehyde, and dust have increased, with those of nickel and copper jumping 50%.


The environmental costs and health impacts of such extensive pollution are tragic. Children in particular have suffered. Svetlana Golubkova, a local doctor, is quoted in the BBC report as saying: “In the 1960s a lot of people came here and they were all healthy. But now there are very, very few healthy children being born here and that is all because of the environment.” Children of Norilsk suffer from a high incidence of respiratory diseases. According to W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent. Siberia and the Russians, the population of Norilsk – and of other symbols of Soviet industrial might such as Magnitogorsk, Cheliabinsk, Novokuznetsk, and Kemerovo – “enjoys a life expectancy lower than the people of Paraguay and suffers an infant mortality rate that stands on a par with that of China and Sri Lanka” (p. 399). Children here “suffer some of the highest rates of blood and kidney diseases anywhere in the former Soviet Union, while the city’s men have the highest incidence of lung cancer in the world. Workers in the foundries of Norilsk wear gas masks from the time they start work until they finish, and all the berries and mushrooms within a twenty-mile radius of the city are toxic” (p. 403). Even the Soviet authorities admitted the impact of pollution of the residents’ health, as one writer in a Soviet magazine Chemistry and Life reported sadly, “The sickest children in the country live at Norilsk” (p. 400). Numerous studies have confirmed causal connections between poor health and industrial pollution: investigations of ear, nose and throat diseases among schoolchildren revealed that children living near the copper plant were twice as likely to become ill than those living in further districts. Similarly, children living near the nickel plant were shown to become ill at a rate 1.5 times higher than children from districts farther away. Mortality from respiratory diseases in Norilsk is considerably higher than the average in Russia, accounting for 15.8% of all deaths among children. Premature births and late-term pregnancy complications are also frequent. Sulfur dioxide emissions contribute to chronic diseases of the lungs, respiratory tracts, and digestive systems – and can result in lung cancer.

Written shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, works such as Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly’s Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature under Siege and W. Bruce Lincoln’s The Conquest of a Continent paint a dark picture of Siberia as a land “exploited for the benefit of others, drained of its wealth, and poisoned to a point beyond which complete recovery may no longer be possible” and bearing “the burden of that terrible verdict [of death by ecocide] most heavily of all” (Lincoln, p. 399). Is there any hope for Norilsk at all?** Norilsk Nickel promises to continue combating pollution. Officials expect to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by approximately two-thirds by 2020, but even the company’s directors admit that it is hard to guarantee this pace of reduction because the necessary technology is still in the development stage. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace also remain deeply skeptical. As they note, it is unclear what could be done with the huge amounts of sulfur that will result if sulfur dioxide emissions are reduced to such an extent. As transporting it to world markets from such a remote Arctic region would too expensive, it would likely become yet another environmental contaminant.

Interestingly, little mention has been made about Norilsk Nickel’s environmental problems during Mikhail Prokhorov’s presidential campaign in 2011-2012. Mr. Prokhorov was the general director of Norilsk Nickel from 2001 to 2008, and he has remained a member of the company’s board of directors. Criticisms from his competition, especially the pro-Kremlin team, focused not on his political platform or the increase in pollution that happened on his watch, but on such personal matters as his immense wealth (Mr. Prokhorov is considered the third richest man from Russia and the 32nd richest man in the world, according to the 2011 Forbes listing, with his fortune estimated at $18 billion); his status as a single man (which according to some critics prevents him from understanding the depth of Russia’s problems); his patronage of culture and sports (he is an owner of NBA’s New Jersey Nets); and his calm and composed demeanor (which presents such a contrast from that of other candidates, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party).

Russian presidential election: initial results

Though Mikhail Prokhorov, who ran as an independent, was predicted to come in last in the earliest polls, his popularity grew and in late February 2012 he was predicted to get nearly 9% of the vote. According to the official election results, Mr. Prokhorov received over 5.6 million votes, or 7.94%. Still, many consider these results rigged. For example, initial returns had him at 9.2%. His sister and co-founder of the Mikhail Prokhorov fund, Irina Prokhorova, who participated in the presidential debates on his behalf (vs. Mr. Putin’s envoy, film director Nikita Mikhalkov), claimed in a recent interview that he actually received 15-16% of the vote.





An interesting geographical pattern emerges from Russia’s presidential election results. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Prokhorov did best in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. Also unsurprising is his success in such industrial and shipping areas as Kaliningrad, Sverdlovsk, and Tomsk oblasts, and in the Russian Far East, including Sakhalin Island, Magadan oblast, and Khabarovsk Krai, where voters were attracted by his anti-corruption, open-trade, and privatization programs. On the other hand, voters in gas-producing areas such as Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in Western Siberia may have been driven away by his campaign promise to “provide all natural gas producers with equal access to pipelines and export purveyance, to break up Gazprom into several competing companies… and to privatize government-run oil and gas companies” (curiously, the same regions that gave the lowest percentages to Prokhorov, gave the highest percentages to Putin, suggesting a possibility of higher than average vote rigging there). Krasnoyarsk Krai, where Norilsk is located, gave 8.38% of its votes to Mr. Prokhorov, which is only slightly above his overall official election returns.






*The mosque of Norilsk, belonging to the local Tatar community, is claimed by some sources to be the northernmost Muslim prayer house in the world (69°20’N). However, it appears that this title rightfully belongs to a mosque in Tromso, Norway (69°40′58″N).

**Ironically, one of the largest of Norilsk Nickel smelting plants is called Nadezhda ‘Hope’ in Russian.

Related Posts

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: