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"We fulfill all environmental requirements”

Deputy Minister in Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology Denis Khramov plays down the negative environmental impacts from the smelter in Nikel. Photos: Thomas Nilsen

SVANHOVD: “The emission does not exceed our norms,” Deputy Minister Denis G. Khramov in Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology told his Norwegian counterpart at the annual environmental commission meeting. The plant in Nikel is the largest air-polluter in the Barents Region.

Location

No actual progress is seen more than two years after Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and then-President Dmitri Medvedev signed a joint declaration on reducing the controversial emission from the plants in Pechenga.

The clouds of sulphur dioxide and heavy metals were framing the horizon a few kilometers away from where top-environmental officials of the two countries were arguing what to do with the emission. Or what not to do. Norway had for good reasons located the meeting to the Pasvik valley, just cross the border from the smelter in Nikel. The pollution from the plant is likely the most problematic unsolved bi-lateral topic between the two neighbors in the north.

Seriously contaminated
“An area of 4,000 square kilometers is seriously contaminated by heavy metals from the plants in Pechenga,” Norway’s Henriette Westhrin argued. She is State Secretary in the Ministry of Environment.

“The emission does not exceed our norms on heavy metals,” Denis Khramov replyed. He was supported by Olga Mokrotovarova from the Metrological Centre in Murmansk. She is in charge of measuring airborne heavy metals in Zapolyarny and Nikel.

“We have measured 700 mg/m3 of nickel. The maximum allowance is 1,000 mg. For cobber we have measured up to 960 mg/m3,” Mokrotovarova said.

Different regulations
The challenge is that while the Russian side refers to heavy metal concentrations in the air, the Norwegian side is worried about the increasing levels measured in flora and fauna. Heavy metals accumulate in the food chain and fallout measured one year is just added to the levels from previous years.  

“The annual emission of suphur dioxide from the plants is more than five times higher than the total Norwegian emission,” Henriette Westhrin continued.

The straight forward talk by the Norwegian State Secretary was replied by Mikael Shkondin, head of Kola GMK’s environmental department also taking part at the Environmental Commission meeting.

“I would gladly gentle you with the fact that the wind will not change direction. The only thing that could change the wind direction is if the earth itself starts to turn the other way. If that happens we are all in a lot of trouble.”

Smoggy neighbour
The smoke and smog coming out of the chimneys, roofs and walls at the plant in Nikel mostly blows to the east and south. Consequently, the worst ecological damage is seen on the Russian side of the Pasvik River. But the smoggy neighbour has huge impact across the border as well. A coming report from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) that BarentsObserver has got insight to reconfirm that the concentrations of SO2 in the border areas to Russia are the highest in Norway. Also, NILU reports about an alarming increase in fallout of heavy metals from the Russian smelters on Norwegian side of the border.

While Norway continues to stress the need to drastically cut the emission in Nikel, the Russian environmental authorities was more playing the arguments of Kola GMK and sounded more relaxed than ever.

“It is not always easy to quench demands for better environment to a plant that is the cornerstone of a city where large social consequences can be the result,” Deputy Minister Denis Khramov said.

Billion $$$ profit
Kola GMK is the regional subsidiary of Norilsk-Nickel, a company that posted a net profit of $3,63 billion for the year 2011, up 17 percent from 2010, according to MetalBulletin.

The joint declaration signed by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and then-President Dmitri Medvedev in Oslo in April 2010 reads; “The parties agree that the emission from the nickel production in the Pechenga region in Murmansk Oblast is a cause for concern and must be brought down to a level that does not harm health and environment in the border area. The Russian side will in this regard ensure that necessary actions are taken to reduce the emissions.”

Civil society
In July this year, a meeting was set up to ensure progress to the words of Stoltenberg and Medvedev after two years without any action. Officials from Oslo and Moscow took part, in addition to representatives of Kola GMK. The Norwegian Ministry of Environment then expressed a necessity to involve the civil society in the talks on pollution from the plants in Pechenga.

“We would like to learn more about what you have done in regard to involving the civil society,” Henriette Westhrin asked her Russian counterpart at Monday’s meeting.

“I see now problem in informing the society about this issues,” Denis Khramov replied.

“Chairman of the Public Council in Rosprirodnadzor (Russia’s state environmental watch-dog) has been in the region. He had meetings locally, including with public organizations. His visit was broadly reported about in the media.”

Not so for everyone. The environmental group Bellona, with offices both in Murmansk and Oslo, has been working with the pollution from Nikel for decades. Larisa Bronder at the Oslo office tells another than the official story to BarentsObserver.

“To make a long story short, Mr. Malyshevsky, the chairman of the Public Council in Rosprirodnadzor, visited Pechenganickel. He had meeting with Murmansk Governor Marina Kovtun where the agenda was secret. He met no one from any NGO.”