The Daldykan River runs right past the Russian settlement of Norilsk, the world’s most northerly city. Remote it may be, but Norilsk, which sits firmly inside the Arctic Circle, is home to over 100,000 people. And, as of recently, it took center stage in an environmental scandal that’s captured the world’s attention.
The scandal occurred at the beginning of September 2016. Norilsk locals had noticed that the Daldykan River – normally so lovely and so blue – had turned a distressing shade of blood red. And, although the river is unconnected to the city’s water supply, residents deemed the color strange enough to share on Russian social media.
The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment subsequently promised to investigate the phenomenon. Its theory was that the red hue could be the result of a leak from the nearby Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant.
Others, however, believed that the color had been caused by a deliberate chemical runoff from the same plant. Others still blamed the incident on a combination of the facility’s wastewater mixing with mineral ore. But, whichever way you cut it, everybody was pointing the finger at the nickel plant.
This wasn’t, in fact, the first time that pollution had been blamed for weird events in this part of Siberia. Certainly, the region has many mines that tap into its rich deposits of copper, nickel and silvery-white palladium.
This wealth of natural resources, then, comes at a cost to the environment. Indeed, mining the metals means that over four million tons of pollutants – including arsenic and lead – are belched into the atmosphere from Norilsk each year.
Environmentalist Richard Fuller, the president of the Blacksmith Institute, told TIME that “there’s not a single living tree” within a 30-mile radius of the Nadezhda plant. “It’s just a wasteland,” he added.
Incidentally, Norilsk was established in the mid 1930s as a Siberian labor camp. Life for the people forced to work there would have been pretty miserable, and while labor camps were later outlawed, the city remains, to this day, a challenging place to live.
Russia’s industry-driven pollution problem, however, is by no means limited to outermost Siberia. Today, in fact, three quarters of the country’s surface water – and, startlingly, half of all Russian water – is deemed polluted.
Groups representing the local indigenous community have accused the Norilsk media of trying to cover up the latest incident. Speaking to AFP, activist Sidor Chuprin described a report that concluded that the color was a natural result of clay as “laughable.”
Indeed, Norilsk Nickel, which owns Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, initially denied responsibility for the Daldykan River’s distinctly unnatural color. It did, however, decide to limit production volumes while government tests were undertaken.
Norilsk Nickel actually has a firm grip on the Taymyr Peninsula, on which Norilsk is located. With access to the region controlled by the company, and with its plants located in isolated places, it’s been difficult for environmentalists to keep tabs on what, exactly, has been going on in this corner of the Arctic.
However, with pictures of the red river having gone viral, and people around the world questioning why the waters had turned such an alarming color, Norilsk Nickel felt compelled to release a statement. It said, “As far as we know, the color of the river today is not different from its normal state.”
Not long afterwards, though, the company performed an unexpected U-turn. Yes, despite its initial protestations, Norilsk Nickel later admitted that the company was responsible for turning the Daldykan River red.
In fact, the company claimed that a rainstorm on September 5 resulted in flooding at the Nadezhda plant, specifically at a filtration dam. Therefore, the resulting overflow went straight into the river.
So, when this happened, the waters of the Daldykan turned red. Norilsk Nickel believes that people and animals aren’t at risk, but environmentalists have said that the true impact will take a while to assess.
Norilsk Nickel’s statement read, “On the 5th of September after abnormal heavy rain, the overflow of one of the dikes occurred, and water entered Daldykan River.” It added that it would take steps to avoid a repeat incident in the future.
The company explained that the “short-term” discoloration was caused by iron salts, and that these were essentially harmless. Time will tell, however, whether this really is the case – and people are already worried that it isn’t.
Alexei Kiselyov, an official from Greenpeace Russia, told AFP, “You can’t just say that it’s no big deal. Right now there is a ministry of environment commission there.” He added, however, that investigations were likely to prove difficult owing to the plant’s remote location.
Local activist Sidor Chuprin, meanwhile, told the news agency that Norilsk Nickel employees “don’t care about polluting because they all have homes on the mainland.” This is one environmental dispute, it seems, that’s far from over. In the meantime, the Daldykan River is retaining its otherworldly red color, much to locals’ concern.