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Rogue Russian Mining Company Blames Permafrost Thaw for Biggest-Ever Arctic Oil Spill

Vladimir Putin’s rage over the world’s biggest-ever Arctic oil spill may end up triggering long-overdue environmental reforms, with speculation mounting that a stalled 2018 environmental protection bill might actually pass in the wake of the disaster.

The company responsible, MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC, “has said the accident was caused by a thaw in the permafrost weakening the foundations of the storage tank,” Reuters reports. Bloomberg says that’s just one possible explanation for the disaster.

Either way, Nornickel, Russia’s biggest miner, “didn’t make a public statement until two days after the May 29 accident, which leaked over 20,000 tons (150,000 barrels) of diesel into a fragile Arctic river system,” Bloomberg reports. “By then, images of the catastrophe had gone viral on social media and soon the governor of the region made a public report to a visibly irritated Putin. The president publicly scolded Vladimir Potanin, Nornickel’s biggest shareholder and the country’s richest man, for not upgrading the tank before it leaked.”

Last Wednesday, with wind, rain, and cold complicating the cleanup and Greenpeace comparing the disaster to the 1989 crash of the Exxon Valdez, Russian investigators detained the manager of an Arctic power station, the chief engineer, and his deputy in connection with the spill, Reuters adds. Nornickel said that reaction was overly harsh.

“There is no reason to believe that our colleagues could interfere with the investigation,” the company said. “The power station managers are working with law enforcement officials, and would be much more useful on the clean-up site.”

But “Nornickel has long been criticized for ignoring environmental issues,” Bloomberg writes. “A small investment in the tank might have prevented the spill, which now threatens extinction for many fish, birds, and mammals unique to Siberia’s Taimyr Peninsula, a senior official said. Putin was very angry over the spill, according to the person, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly.”

It isn’t the first time the company “has wounded Russia’s environmental reputation,” the news agency notes, adding that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund blacklisted Nornickel in 2009 over the damage it had already done to the peninsula.

Now, in a country responsible for at least 10,000 oil spills per year, some degree of relief could come from stricter regulations in a bill that passed first reading in 2018 and has been stalled ever since. “The law would require companies with fuel storage or pipelines to maintain detailed plans to contain spills and create financial reserves to fix any damage,” Bloomberg writes.

But Darya Kozlova, head of oil and gas regulation at Moscow-based Vygon Consulting, told the news agency the bill is too vague to make much difference. “A better approach would be to rely on insurance policies and online monitoring, she said.”