Arctic spill fuels calls for shakeup at Russia mining giant

©Agence France-Presse

A massive clean up effort involved trapping floating diesel with booms on crucial water ways to prevent it flowing into fresh water lakes

Moscow (AFP) - Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel faced pressure from a key shareholder on Tuesday to overhaul its management after disasters including a massive Arctic fuel spill that sparked a state of emergency.

Aluminium producer Rusal, which owns 28 percent of Norilsk Nickel, said it was "seriously concerned" over recent accidents that damaged the environment in the Russian Arctic.

"What is currently happening at Nornickel invites to seriously question the competence of the company's management as well as their suitability to be in charge of running the business," Rusal said in a statement in English.

It also criticised the management's "collective inertia" that it said was likely to lead to "damaging criticism from the environmental and investment communities".

President Vladimir Putin declared a state of emergency after 21,000 tonnes of diesel leaked from a fuel storage tank at one of Norilsk Nickel's plants in the Arctic in May.

A massive clean-up effort involved trapping floating diesel with booms on crucial waterways to prevent it flowing into freshwater lakes.

The metals giant said the accident could have been caused by global warming thawing the permafrost under the fuel reservoir leading it to collapse.

Environmentalists described the leak as the first large-scale spill in the region above the Arctic Circle and Putin has said he expected Norilsk Nickel to fully restore the environment.

Russia's environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor has said that a Norilsk Nickel subsidiary should pay an unprecedented $2 billion in punitive damages, but the company is contesting the sum.

  • 'Flagrant violation' - 

Greenpeace Russia on Tuesday accused the company and the Russian authorities of limiting access to information about the spill.

"The biggest problem is that there is no information," said Ivan Blokov, campaign director at Greenpeace Russia, adding that he would not believe official updates "until there is complete and comprehensive information".

On Sunday, Norilsk Nickel reported a new leak, saying that nearly 45 tonnes of aviation fuel spilt from a pipeline belonging to one of its subsidiaries near the Arctic port of Dudinka.

It said the leak, which lasted around 15 minutes during an oil transfer, posed no threat to people living in the area.

Last month, the company announced it was suspending employees at an enrichment plant near Norilsk after they pumped wastewater from a dangerously full reservoir into nearby tundra in a "flagrant violation" of protocol.

Rusal called on Norilsk Nickel to move its headquarters from Moscow to Norilsk and said the company controlled by billionaire Vladimir Potanin should overhaul "corporate policies towards environmental and safety issues".

In response to the spate of high-profile environmental accidents, Putin this week signed legislation aimed at preventing future spills. 

The law obliges energy companies to set aside funds to pay for possible spills and to develop response plans in the case of an accident.