Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Norilsk Tip of Iceberg as Millions of Disasters in Russian North Waiting to Happen, Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 13 – Moscow has tried to pin the blame for the Norilsk oil spill on a single individual, but the problem is systemic, reflecting the coming together of inadequate Soviet construction methods, the untrammeled and unsupervised race for profit, and global warming, Vladimir Grinspon says.

            Millions of buildings, pipelines and other facilities were built by political prisoners in Stalin’s time when no one cared what happened to them, and tens of thousands of them died from spills and chemical exposure, the former official of the Norilsk Metallurgical Combine says (newizv.ru/news/politics/12-06-2020/stroitel-nornikelya-bolshinstvo-sovetskih-sooruzheniy-na-severe-pod-ugrozoy).

            This disaster was then compounded after 1991 when Russian capitalists have pursued profit without adequate supervision by the authorities, Grinspon continues.  Officials either looked the other way or did not look at all, and those interested only in profit did not update or in some cases even repair aging Soviet constructions.

            And all this has been compounded by the melting of the permafrost layer as a result of global warming, a process that was already undermining many buildings and pipelines in the region in the 1970s but now is affecting ever larger number of facilities with accidents, often leading to fatalities as well as environmental contamination, now the norm.

            To prevent things from getting even more out of control, he argues, the authorities must inspect all of them – and that means “millions” of sites – and have the power to shut them down unless and until  the owners of the buildings, pipelines and other infrastructure spend money to bring them  up to standard.

            Grinspon clearly does not expect that to happen, and consequently what has happened at Norilsk will be repeated again and again across the Russian arctic with the environment despoiled and the people there having stunted and much-shortened lives and their futures as communities destroyed.

            What is happening instead is that the local businesses are still trying to cover up what has happened and what the spill means, and Moscow is intervening not to address the problem as a whole but rather in shock-work fashion to deal with this one problem as if that were enough instead of working to correct the problems Norilsk has revealed.

            This shock-work approach means, Stanislav Meshcherakov, a Moscow specialist, says, that people from outside the region will come, work intensely this summer and possibly next and then go away until there is another disaster that businesses can’t conceal and therefore Moscow can’t ignore (nakanune.ru/articles/116147/).

            Meanwhile, chemicals from the spill will spread in the water, poisoning the fish to the point that anyone who eats them will get sick or even die, and on land, making it uninhabitable for the peoples of the region. Ultimately it will affect people in other countries as well (siberiantimes.com/ecology/casestudy/features/next-stop-kara-sea-in-the-arctic-ocean/).

            But the first victims of this process will be the numerically small peoples of the North, all the more so because the Putin regime has forced many of their activist leaders into emigration and worked to amalgamate their regions with larger Russian ones, a process that will mean their voices are ever less likely to be heard.

            If Moscow really works to clean up the Norilsk spill, that will take at least a decade, the Bellona Organization warns (bellona.ru/2020/06/05/na-vosstanovlenie-okruzhayushhej-sredy-posle-razliva-v-norilske-ujdet-minimum-10-let); but past practice suggests that after a brief and much-ballyhooed effort, it will declare victory and allow the companies to continue as they were.

            But if that happens, the EU-Russia Civic Forum warns in a statement issued today, not only will the fragile environment of the North continue to be despoiled but the continued survival of the indigenous peoples there will be threatened (eu-russia-csf.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/StatementOilSpillIndingenousPeoples15.06.2020_ru.pdf).

            That would be a tragedy far greater than the one that the Moscow media are talking about so far. 

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