MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a state of emergency in the Arctic city of Norilsk on Wednesday after a huge leak of fuel into a river and upbraided a senior official on television over what he said was a bungled state response.
A fuel tank at a power station in the remote, industrial region lost pressure on May 29 and leaked 20,000 tonnes of fuel and lubricants, the Investigative Committee, a law enforcement agency, said. Much of it flowed into the Ambarnaya River.
At a televised government meeting to discuss the spill, Putin said he was shocked to find out local authorities had only learned of the incident from social media two days after it happened and scolded the region’s governor Alexander Uss on air.
“What — are we to learn about emergency situations from social networks? Are you alright healthwise over there?” Putin said, waving his hand across his eyes.
The state environment watchdog said 15,000 tonnes of oil products had seeped into the river system with another 6,000 into the subsoil.
An expanse of crimson water could be seen stretching from shore to shore down a river and one of its offshoots in aerial footage published by the RIA news agency this week.
Putin said he supported a proposal to declare a national state of emergency in the area as it would help the clean-up.
Russia’s state fishing agency said on Tuesday the river would need decades to recover from what it described as an ecological catastrophe.
“…It can already be said now that it will take decades for the restoration of the ecological balance of the affected Norilo-Pyasinsky water system,” said Dmitry Klokov, a spokesman for the Rosrybolovstvo state fishing agency.
Norilsk, a remote city of 180,000 situated 300 kilometers (190 miles) inside the Arctic Circle, is built around Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.
The city, which foreigners require permission to visit, has been dogged by a bad reputation for pollution, although the company says it has mounted a big push to improve the city’s environment and surroundings.
In response to the spill, the company says it is doing all it can to clean up and it has brought in specialists from Moscow who have sectioned off the affected part of the river to stop the oil products spreading further.
Reporting by Tom Balmforth and Vladimir Soldatkin.