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Russia Orders Review Of Infrastructure Built On Permafrost In Wake Of Arctic Fuel Disaster

Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office on June 5 ordered a review of all hazardous objects built on permafrost in response to a fuel tank leak that has created an ecological disaster in the Arctic linked to climate change.

President Vladimir Putin ordered a state of emergency earlier this week after a holding tank at a thermal power plant in the industrial city of Norilsk spilled at least 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the soil, two rivers, and a downstream lake.

The power plant is owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, the world's leading nickel and palladium producer, which said the leak on May 29 was caused when pillars supporting a storage tank sank due to the thawing of permafrost soil.

The Prosecutor-General's Office said its preliminary findings showed sagging ground helped trigger the disaster and ordered other structures built on permafrost to be examined.

"To prevent a similar situation on especially hazardous structures on territories prone to melting of permafrost," the prosecutor-general has "ordered a comprehensive review of such objects," it said.

Sixty-five percent of Russia is covered by permafrost. Norilsk, an isolated Arctic city of 180,000 people built around Norilsk Nickel, is constructed on permafrost and its infrastructure is threatened by climate change.

The ecological disaster comes as temperatures in Siberia were up to 10 degrees Celsius above average in May and were also higher than normal earlier in the year, the Copernicus Climate Change Service said on June 5.

The European Union's climate service said spring in Siberia was marked by “highly anomalous temperatures,” in particular over the lower reaches of the Ob and Yenisei rivers. The Yenisei river is located just west of Norilsk.

In an online meeting on June 5, Putin criticized Norilsk Nickel President Vladimir Potanin for not replacing the fuel tank earlier.

"If you had changed it on time, there would not have been this ecological damage and the company would not have had to foot these [cleanup] costs. Study this as closely as possible inside the company," Putin told Potanin during the televised meeting.

Potanin, who is Russia's richest man with a net worth of nearly $20 billion, according to Forbes, said Norilsk Nickel will pay for the costs of the cleanup, estimated at 10 billion rubles ($145 million).

Norilsk Nickel hushed up and downplayed the scale of the disaster for at least two days after the accident. The fuel seeped into the ground and then entered the Daldykan and Ambarnaya rivers, which feed into Lake Pyasino.

Russian authorities have arrested the head of one of the units of the thermal power plant for negligence and violating environmental regulations.

Greenpeace Russia has described the disaster as the "first accident of such a scale in the Arctic."

Deputy Minister for Natural Resources and Ecology Yelena Panova has said it could take at least 10 years for the local environment to recover.

With reporting by AFP, Reuters, and RFE/RL's Russian Service
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