Closure of Nornickel’s plant, Barents region’s biggest air polluter

Oligarch and Nornickel CEO Vladimir Potanin first announced the closure of the plant last fall, a move affecting about 800 workers. With just six weeks before the shutdown, only two workers have not chosen any of the options offered by the company.

Damage to human health, the environment and cross-border relations with Norway have made the town of Nikel in the Murmansk region infamous much further than its acid rain has damaged the fragile taiga forest on the Kola Peninsula and northern Scandinavia. Tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and other hazardous gases have annually been emitted from the chimneys of Nornickel’s factory in the town named after the metal produced there.

By Dec. 25, the last workers involved in smelting production will be transferred to new jobs. After that, according to the company’s human resources and social policy director Anna Krygina, the remaining workers will work in customer service and taking apart equipment. This work is scheduled to continue to the end of 2021. In an interview with the Nornickel-sponsored TV21 television channel, Krygina said many of the workers will retire, while many others will fill vacancies at Nornickel’s subsidiary Kola Mining and Metallurgical Combine. The company operates mines in Zapolyarny while the production now shutting down in Nikel will partly be transferred to the larger factory complex in Monchegorsk.

“Today we are talking about plans for the workers. Now, the documentation and implementation of all these plans are starting. So we still have two months of hard work,” Krygina said in the interview.

Nikel is a typical ‘monogorod,’ a town whose economy centers around a single major company or industry. Many locals fear their town is doomed, but officials have made promises to compensate the job losses. Transitions to other industries, like tourism, have been named as a priority by both Nornickel and regional authorities. Successful or not, many of the current employees at the plant will move elsewhere. The Barents Observer has previously reported on unsold apartments in Nikel on the market for 100,000 rubles ($1,300), or about as much as a new iPhone.  The smoke will be gone by Christmas Day, but the factory will still dominate the town’s skyline. Production machinery and equipment are to be transferred to other divisions of Nornickel in the Murmansk region and on the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. The buildings will be demolished by 2025 and will be followed by a two-year land reclamation period. By 2027, the smelter that was erected a few years after World War II will be history.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the smelter received ore from Norilsk which contained much more sulfur than from the local mines in Nikel and Zapolyarny. At their peak, annual emissions reached up to 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2). In the last two decades, SO2 emissions have been reduced to less than 90,000 tons per year. The smoke brings additional tons of heavy metals into the air which also spread across the border to Norway, where the maximum allowed SO2 limits for air quality have notoriously been violated.




Mining profit in Serbia above clean air

Arsenic pollution during August in Serbian city Bor reached 323 times higher level, which suggests that the profit won the victory over ecology, according to ETF professor Dr. Slobodan Vukosavić. Last year, Bor was at the top of the cities with the most polluted air, so the protests of citizens continued on the streets, and recently the city administration filed a criminal complaint against Zijin Bor Koper in the Municipal Public Prosecutor’s Office. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikić, did not want to reveal the details of the report for ours. Two days after the criminal complaint was filed by the city administration, the company Zijin issued a statement stating that they were stopping the operation of the smelter and starting the overhaul that was otherwise planned for November.

According to the Center for Investigative Journalism, the Commercial Court in Zaječar passed a verdict blaming the company Zijin Bor Koper, the successor of RTV Bor, and one of its managers for air pollution in Bor. Because in a couple of days in 2019 and 2020, the concentration of sulfur dioxide was eight times higher than allowed, they are obliged to pay 450,000 dinars. Since both parties have filed an appeal, both the Chinese company and the Basic Public Prosecutor’s Office in Zaječar, which is conducting this procedure upon the report of the Ministry of Ecology, the final word will be given by the Commercial Court in Belgrade.

Filip Radović, the director of the Environmental Protection Agency, did not want to talk about the worrying quality of the Bor air.

While the authorities avoid talking about this problem, the data show that the concentrations of sulfur dioxide repeatedly exceeded the allowed 350 micrograms. For example, on August 28, a record of 2,285 micrograms was recorded.

Professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Dr. Slobodan Vukosavić, warns that the level of suspended particles measured in Serbian cities has a negative impact on human health, reduces resistance to respiratory infections and reduces cognitive intelligence.

Only a couple of years ago, the media reported that the situation in Bor was better, because RTB “Bor” put into operation a new copper smelter. The latest news about criminal charges, protests, show that this is not the case.

The solution for better air quality in Serbia is in the money – clean air in euros costs us around 2.4 billion. So much needs to be invested to correct the consequences that the prolonged transition of the economy, poor business operations of state-owned companies and low level of awareness have left on the environment. And most investments are expected from the state because the biggest polluters are state-owned companies – EPS, RTB “Bor”, “Azotara”, “Petrohemija”, city heating plants… And as the cold weather follows, this invisible problem will become more visible.

– The most important cause of air pollution is excessive emission of suspended particles. The biggest polluters are small heating plants and individual furnaces that use outdated equipment and fuel of poorer quality. Air quality is additionally endangered during the winter months due to the influence of temperature inversion and low temperatures, which can force weaker standing households to burn everything that can burn – notes Dr. Vukosavić.

Our interlocutor adds that environmental pollution is closely related to other problems and often indicates an unfair distribution.

– Wild landfills and excessive emissions are less often the result of negligence and more often the desire to make money at the expense of the environment. Stakeholders who profit from violations of the regulations use their media influence to cover up the real causes of pollution. The ignorance, passivity and pliability of the population also contribute to the problem. Equally harmful are the reckless demands to close all industrial plants. Effective defense is a vigilant and informed community ready to invest time and effort to protect its air, water and land in a sustainable way, rejecting the offered narratives and relying on their own judgment – our interlocutor concludes.




Polish and Czech dispute over Polish lignite mine and power plant

Poland has some of the worst air quality in the European Union, so it is no wonder why Poland’s planned expansion of its Turów lignite mine on the Czech border is straining bilateral ties and raising questions about compliance with European Union regulations.

Turów’s licence expires in April and Polish state-owned utility PGE hopes extraction will continue until 2044 and expand to within 100 metres of the Czech Republic’s border and close to German territory.

In Bogatynia, the Polish town closest to the mine, PGE is the largest employer.

PGE’s 1.3-gigawatt power belches pollution across the border and a new 450-megawatt plant is due to begin operations this year. The site supplies approximately 8 per cent of Polish electricity.

Environmentally ruinous coal currently makes up about 80 per cent of Poland’s energy generation – the highest coal dependency in the EU – and it is only expected to fall to 50 per cent by 2040. According to the European statistics agency, Eurostat, renewables made up 10.9 per cent of Poland’s energy mix in 2017, which will need to increase to 15 per cent this year to comply with the EU’s environmental targets.

It has been estimated in a European Commission report that around four-fifths of Polish coal mines are unprofitable.

The populist Law and Justice Party administration has maintained support for the coal sector and provides government subsidies to preserve the industry.

Rising carbon emission costs and volatility in the energy market, however, have made that commitment less popular among voters.

The municipal government in Liberec on the Czech side of the border said the brown-coal, opencast mine and plant endangered the water supply for 30,000 Czechs. It has filed a complaint in Brussels that says the site contravenes EU trans-boundary environmental rules and that PGE has failed to consider Czech interests.

“The water crisis caused by decades of Turów mining activity is already happening. The prolongation of mining can make it significantly worse,” said Martin Puta, the Liberec governor. PGE was playing “roulette with our water resources”, he added.

PGE said it monitored groundwater and water in the Czech border town of Uhelná “may be impacted”. The firm added that it was working on a subterranean cut-off wall to “limit the impact of the opencast mine on this water intake”.

Residents in the German border town of Zittau also say PGE has failed to address cross-border pollution and noise from the mine and power station.

“In our opinion, this environmental impact assessment wasn’t made to fulfil laws, it was just made up,” Zittau’s mayor Thomas Zenker told the media.

“We try to be honest, but not too harsh. Because the problems on our side are not comparable to the Czech side. So we try to support the Czech side without taking away from the Polish side every chance for development,” the mayor added.