Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed a proposal to declare a state of emergency on a federal scale, days after a diesel fuel leak seeped into local rivers, threatening an ecological disaster in the fragile Arctic environment.
Authorities in the Siberian city of Norilsk already declared a state of emergency after at least 20,000 tons of diesel fuel spilled from a thermal power plant on May 29 near the industrial city of Norilsk, located above the Arctic Circle.
At a meeting with Putin on June 3, Emergencies Minister Yevgeny Zinichev called for the spill to be declared a federal emergency – a move that would allow the use of Russia’s federal capabilities to tackle the situation.
"I agree with your proposal to declare an emergency," the Russian president responded to Zinichev.
He also instructed the minister "to be quick organizing the work related to prevention of further negative effects on the environment."
During the televised videoconference, Putin lambasted the head of the company that runs the thermal power facility, NTEK, after officials said it failed to report the incident.
"Why did government agencies only find out about this two days after the fact? Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media? Is there something wrong with you?" Putin asked NTEK chief Sergei Lipin.
Russian mining conglomerate Norilsk Nickel, which owns NTEK, said the company had reported what happened in a "timely and proper" way.
It also said the leak was caused when pillars supporting a storage tank sank due to permafrost soil thawing.
Russia's Investigative Committee announced it had launched three criminal investigations over environmental violations and detained an employee of the plant.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has released satellite photos showing crimson red waters in the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers near Norilsk.
The environmental group warned that the poisoned water could reach Lake Pyasino, north of the city, but said on June 2 that oil booms installed by the Federal Marine Rescue Service appeared to be helping.
However, the containment doesn’t mean that toxic elements won't enter the lake, said Aleksey Knizhnikov of WWF-Russia.
“Unfortunately the most poisonous elements of diesel fuel are aromatic compounds like benzol, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, which mix with the water and it is impossible to collect them using oil booms,” he said.
Russia's Rosrybolovstvo state fishing agency described the fuel leak as an ecological catastrophe.
"It can already be said now that it will take decades for the restoration of the ecological balance of the affected Norilo-Pyasinsky water system," said Dmitry Klokov, a spokesman for the agency.
Norilsk, an isolated city of 180,000 people built around Norilsk Nickel, the world's leading nickel and palladium producer, is located in the Krasnoyarsk region.
The city is constructed on permafrost and its infrastructure is threatened by melting ice caused by climate change.
Norilsk Nickel has historically been a major polluter. In 2018, it accounted for more than half of the emissions of sulfur dioxide emissions, a toxic gas tracked by NASA across Russia, the Barents Observer has reported.
The company is owned by Vladimir Potanin, who is Russia's richest man with a net worth of nearly $20 billion, according to Forbes.