“You can’t breathe in air with 7000 micrograms of sulfur dioxide.”

Nikel, Russia is home of a nickel smelting plant.
The nickel smelting plant in Nikel, Russia just a few kilometers from the northern Norwegian border.

Norilsk Nickel should move to a functioning, upgraded plant to stop pollution from Nikel.


Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology on Tuesday told representatives of “MMC” Norilsk Nickel of the planned decommissioning some of Nikel plant rundown facilities by 2016 and reorganization of metallurgical production at the Monchegorsk plant, which must be upgraded and modernized, the ministry said in a press release yesterday. Monchegorsk is owned by the same company and located some two-hour drive south of Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula.

The program involves modernization and renovation of all stages of processing and consolidation of smelting and refining capacity to a more modern venue including technological upgrading and expansion of refinery at Monchegorsk during 2016-2017. Capital investments in the program total more than 50 billion rubles, the release says.

The decision was made in the course of inter-ministerial consultations, and the updated reconfiguration of Monchegorsk is to be accompanied by a special Russian-Norwegian working group. The parties scheduled a technical workshop for September 2014 in Moscow to plan the next steps.

The meeting could be the chance that Kirkenes council members asked for when they failed to back Mayor Cecilie Hansen’s effort to file a law suit against Norilsk-Nikel in 2013, saying they wanted to appoint a working group that will work on political initiatives and solutions.  Norwegian efforts to work with Russia have continued throughout the Nikel plant’s sordid history, but with little action, it’s easy to lose hope.

Dead forest. Killed by the pollution from Norilsk-Nickel’s plant.

But this week’s announcement by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology is the first time pressure has come from the Russian side to call the company to right the wrong of pollution from Nikel smelting.

While pollution in the cross-border region around Kirkenes has decreased since the early 1990s, pollution is still an ongoing concern, with monitoring showing increases of on the Norwegian side over the last decade. A sharp increase in heavy metals in 2004 registered on three different monitoring programs in air, water and mosses, but the reason for the sudden rise in heavy metals is unknown since information about operations are withheld as trade secrets, NILU researcher Tore Flatslandsmo Bergen told BarentsObserver.

A history of cross-border pollution
A report released Monday by the Murmansk Regional Ministry for Natural Resources and Ecology lists, among many other things, results from measurements of pollutants from Nikel and says that on nine occasions in 2013 the SO2 concentrations were 10 times higher than allowed. In 2007 a measurement in the summer – a time of year when seasonal changes of winds cause the situation to worsen for Nikel residents - a measurement showed 20 times the normal level of sulfur dioxide in the air, an NRK report states.  

“We call it the Russian heat,” Kirkenes Mayor Hansen says. “When summer temperatures rise to 25 or 30 degrees, the deadly clouds come.”

The nickel smelting plant in Nikel, Russia.

On May 28 this year Bergen with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research site in Svanvik just a few kilometers from Nikel recorded the highest levels of air pollution on the Norwegian side of the border since he began measuring in 2002. Sulfur dioxide is measured every 10 minutes at the Svanvik research location, and on that day locals said they could taste the pollution, Bergen said.

“We had up to 2000 micrograms of sulfur dioxide per meter cubed in Svanvik,” Bergen said. “Those measurements were high. But there is a monitoring station in Nikel, and they monitor up to six- or seven-thousand micrograms – that’s extremely high. People would have to go inside. You can’t breathe in air with 7000 micrograms of sulfur dioxide.”

Emissions from Nikel have reduced from about 400 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide in the 1980s to 100 thousand tons today, but that is still about five times the emissions produced in all of Norway.

“People say the Nikel plant in Russia is the biggest environmental problem we have in Norway, and in many ways they are right,” Bergen says.

For decades, cross-border cooperation between researchers has made effort to assess the health effects resulting from Nikel. Birth registries working to document effects passed from exposed mothers into infants is one approach. Studying food security and whether it is safe to eat local berries and fish is another approach taken by the Kolarctic Food and Health Security project in process now. Entire theses and dissertations have been devoted to the cause of assessing effects of pollution from Nikel including from heavy metals that settle in the soil and are passed through the food chain, pollutants in rainfall that enter local water bodies, and sulfur dioxide air pollution which affects global climate change.

Annual meetings between Norwegian and Russian government administrations have included Nikel high on the agenda, but the talks remained just talks with little action. While administrators talk, generations have been born and grown old in the shadow of the Nikel plant.

But more talks are good, in some senses. In 2009 a meeting in Kirkenes brought Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg in contact with local leaders and representatives from Norilsk Nickel, but the conversation was cool according to Mayor Hansen. Then, in 2011 corporate management of Norilsk Nickel in the mining town of Zapolyarny agreed to meet with a delegation of representatives from Norwegian environmental group Bellona, the Finnmark county governor’s office and NILU researchers. Bellona said to NRK that was the first time in Russian history that a large private business party granted audience to civil society. It was a step in the right direction.  

History has also shown that when it comes to environmental upgrades for the private company, money is not the problem. The Norwegian government has repeatedly offered money to upgrade Nikel’s facility for 20 years, but repeatedly nothing is done on the Russian side and the money is now withdrawn. In 1990 Norway allocated 300 million NOK for an upgrade of the plant, but no upgrade was made. In 2001 Norway and Russia agreed that Norway would contribute 20.6 million in grants to help with upgrades, but the offer sat on the table without action.

In 2008, a Norilsk Nikel subsidiary representative said his company did not need the money and stated that they plan to move the production to Monchegorsk, as reported by BarentsObserver. From the numbers, he’s right: the company earned a 31-fold increase in profit for the first six months of 2006 with a year-end profit of 42 billion NOK, NRK reported, though the company’s revenue has dropped dramatically since 2011 due to falling market prices of nickel.

Hopes for an end to the fight in sight
Cecilie Hansen has campaigned against the plant as Mayor of Kirkenes and as a resident of Pasvik Valley just across the border from Nikel since she took office, and she says she will not give up the fight. But the energy behind talking about Nikel has changed, she notices.  

Cecilie Hansen is mayor opf Sør-Varanger Municipality

Large protests in Nikel from the “Stop the Death Clouds” activist group during the early 1990s when the plant was running at high-volume production have faded to a dangerous apathy.

“The biggest problem here now is that people don’t care about the pollution because the government doesn’t do anything about it, so why should they care, nobody else cares?” Hansen says. “If the factory was in Sweden close to the Norwegian border in the south, I’m quite sure somebody would have done something.”

Hansen says she is concerned not only for Sør-Varanger residents but the Russians living in Nikel, many of them friends and counterparts of Norwegians, who are living in the center of the worst pollution. But some of the town’s residents say they have gotten used to the pollution and life in Nikel. The pollution has gotten worse in the last few years. Last year, Hansen says, a cloud of pollution as thick as fog caused Pasvik residents to have trouble breathing, and she received calls inquiring whether residents should avoid going outside.

“It was like a poison fog came over,” she says.

“Continued international pressure and pressure from the Norwegian side is the only thing that will help the situation,” head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat Rune Rafaelsen said.

Rune Rafaelsen is head of the Norwegian Barents Secretariat.

“The Norwegian government cancelling the meetings in March was unwise. Hopefully EU sanctions following the Ukraine crisis won’t prevent leaders from attending Moscow in the fall. Kirkenes is a long way from Oslo, but Vladimir Potanin’s letter to Norway’s Prime Minister in January about re-opening the discussion of the Nikel case might give hope for a solution.”

Vladimir Potanin is CEO of Norilsk-Nickel and the company’s single largest shareholder.