Vladimir Putin has announced a state of emergency in the region surrounding the Arctic city of Norilsk, after a diesel leak left two rivers tainted blood-red.
At least 21,000 tonnes of diesel is understood to have leaked from a local power plant on Friday, after a storage tower ruptured, resulting in a fire and huge spillage. News of the accident took several days to reach the authorities.
Over two increasingly desperate days, officials in the power plant tried to deal with the problem themselves. By the time things were eventually referred higher up the chain, and Mr Putin was informed, over 100,000sq metres of land had been affected.
On Wednesday, the general prosecutor’s office announced it would be opening a criminal case on two counts: damage to land and water and violating environmental protection rules. The manager of the power plant has also been arrested. The incident harks back to the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986, when the Soviet Government conceded that a ‘minor incident’ had occurred, before the full scale of the situation was realised by the international community.
Mr Putin made his displeasure publicly known on Wednesday afternoon, in a video audience with Aleksandr Uss, the local governor. In a short but excruciating conversation, Mr Uss insisted that he too had just been made aware of the disaster from social media, but promised to resolve the situation within two weeks. ”Report over,” the official concluded.
“What do you mean, report over?” said Mr Putin, cutting off his governor as he attempted to respond. “What are you going to do about it? You’re the governor aren’t you?” Greenpeace has since compared the damage caused to ‘half that’ of the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989.
Norilsk is already known for it’s environmental problems. Until very recently, the city of 180,000 inhabitants was considered the most polluted in Russia. Dirty water and foul rivers are certainly not a new phenomenon in the region. But the scale of this accident is set to leave another scar on the local environment for generations.
Officials have yet to present a clear plan about how they intend to deal with the problem. In his conversation with Mr Putin, governor Uss said authorities might be left with no choice but to burn the fuel – an idea with obvious and concerning climatic consequences. He admitted the idea had not been tried before and there was no guarantee of success.