Extreme pollution from nickel plants

Sulfur dioxide and heavy metal pollution is encapsulating the smelter in Nikel. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Monday was not a good day for people with respiratory problems in the industrial towns of Nikel and Zapolyarny. Sulfur dioxide pollution exceeded maximum allowed levels by 3 to 5 times.


Roshydromet, Russia’s federal department for hydrometeorology and environmental monitoring posted a short, but alarming message on its portal yesterday: “The weather conditions contribute to accumulation of pollution in the near ground part of the atmosphere,” and “maximum concentration of sulfur dioxide on February 23 was exceeded by five times, and on February 25, 1,1 time.”

Nikel is home to the infamous smelter that for decades has been contaminating the nature in the Russian, Norwegian borderland.

Air-pollution in neighboring Zapolyarny was not much better, according to Roshydromet. Sulfur-dioxide concentration was 1,3 times higher than maximum allowed on the 23 and 2,8 times higher on Monday. Zapolyarny is home to the roasting plant for nickel-pellets. 

In September last year, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, Denis G. Khramov, told BarentsObserver that “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.”

The Deputy Minister met with his Norwegian counterpart at Svanhovd in Norway’s Pasvik vally, only some few kilometers west of the mega-polluter in Nikel. The smelter in Nikel and the roasting plant in Zapolyarny have a total emission of 90,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) annually. That is five times Norway’s total emission of SO2.

Consentration of sulpur dioxide on the Norwegian side of the border notoriously exceeds maximum allowed Norwegian limits for air quality.

Measurements made by Norwegian scientists in Karpdalen near Norway’s border to Russia for calendar year 2011 show 51 hourly concentrations over 350 micrograms per cubic meter, where the EU and Norwegian legal limit of only 24 exceedences was violated. There were seven daily SO2 averages measured over 125 micrograms per cubic meter. Only three such exceedences are allowed, meaning that Norilsk-Nickel is breaking EU and Norwegian legal limits with their cross-border pollution.

The plants in Nikel and Zapolyarny is operated by Kola GMK, the regional subsidiary of Norilsk-Nickel, a company that posted a net profit of $3,63 billion for the year 2011.

When Russia’s then-President Dmitri Medvedev visited Oslo in Norway in 2010, he signed a joint declaration with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg reading “The parties agree that the emission from the nickel production in Pechanga 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.”      

Since then, nothing has happened.

Dmitri Medvedev will again meet Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg on June 4th. This time in Kirkenes, a small town near Russia’s border and only 40 kilometer from the smelter in Nikel. The two will together with the Prime Ministers from Sweden and Finland mark the 20-years anniversary of the Barents cooperation.