The smell of diesel was so overpowering that it made Vasily Ryabinin dizzy. That meant he was getting close. As an inspector from Russia’s environmental agency, Ryabinin went on his own to the Daldykan River in the Siberian city of Norilsk to see firsthand the aftermath of a major fuel leak at a metals plant.
This surge in climate change in interior Russia — more than three times the global average — is throwing new risks in the way of President Vladimir Putin’s Far North agenda, among his top domestic initiatives. A key danger is piling more infrastructure atop rapidly thawing permafrost, land that remains frozen year after year.
As the permafrost destabilizes, so will the buildings, oil and gas pipelines, roads, railways, and military bases built on top of it, environmentalists and others warn.
This is what metals giant Norilsk Nickel claims happened in late May at its power station about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Melting permafrost shifted the foundation and ruptured a fuel reservoir, sending 21,000 tons of diesel into a fragile ecosystem of rivers and wetlands.
Ryabinin, who grew up in Norilsk, saw photos of the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers stained red with fuel. He decided to check it out for himself. He said security from the plant initially barred him and his boss from visiting the site, despite their working for a governmental agency. They accessed it from the railroad tracks instead, walking more than a mile to a bridge that crossed the river.
“We started to smell it half a kilometer before the bridge,” Ryabinin said. “And then we saw just a flood of diesel in the river.”
Four days later, Putin went public about the spill. He berated both the regional governor and the head of the plant’s subsidiary in a videoconference that was broadcast on state television — a rare public chiding. Some also saw it as underscoring Kremlin worries about its broader strategies in the region.