Norilsk Nickel cautiously opening the conversation with environmentalists

The industrial town of Nikel, near Murmansk, one of the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company's industrial cities.

Publish date: November 20, 2018

Environmentalists are at last hearing something encouraging from Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s biggest polluters –which last week delivered a grudging acknowledgement of its past mistakes and offered the beginnings of a transparent plan to make them right.

Environmentalists are at last hearing something encouraging from Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia’s biggest polluters –which last week delivered a grudging acknowledgement of its past mistakes and offered the beginnings of a transparent plan to make them right.

The words are getting the backing of deeds: In the past two years, emissions of sulfur dioxide from the corporation, which is the worlds biggest nickel producer, have begun to drop – evidence that a multi-billion dollar environmental cleanup plan might be having an impact.

But Norilsk Nickel and activists still feel a divide. The company is fatigued by complaints from environmentalists, who, for their part, are wary of trusting the industrial giant and its decades’ long  history of dodging responsibility for its pollution.
“We are used to the constant criticism from our colleagues and partners in the West, and we are constantly justifying ourselves,” Vladislav Gasumyanov, Norilsk Nickel’s vice president for government relations and administration, told a sustainable development conference in Murmansk last week.

“The time has come when we can calmly discuss what we are doing — not everything is well, but we are doing all we can to change the situation for the better,” he said.

Norilsk Nickel, which came of age as a monolith Soviet industry in the 1930s, operates in two primary locations — Norilsk, in Northern Siberia, and on the Kola Peninsula near Murmansk. Since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, it has been the latter operation that has most provoked Scandinavian environmental ire.
Sulfur dioxide produced in the company’s three area towns has for decades wafted over the Norwegian border, leading to testy exchanges between the company, Oslo and civic officials in Northern Norway.

Residents of Norilsk have likewise toiled under a cloud of sulfur dioxide, and the city has routinely been cited as one of the world’s most polluted locales.

But in 2016, Vladimir Potanin, the company’s chief executive, launched a $17 billion environmental initiative aimed at bringing those emissions down. Under his plan, the company says it will decrease the amount of sulfur dioxide it produces on the Kola Peninsula by 50 percent — and by 75 percent in its hometown of Norilsk in northern Siberia.

In his remarks to the sustainable development conference, Gasumyanov revealed some of the particulars of what the company is doing to fulfill those goals — including the closure of one of its eldest and most polluting facilities in Norilsk. Norilsk Nickel has also reconfigured other operations within its vast structure, such as the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant, which it rebuilt, and the Talnakhsk enrichment facility, which was modernized.

It has also diverted smelting operations — which produce the sulfur dioxide emissions — away from Zapolyarny, one of the three company towns within the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, the Norilsk Nickel subsidiary located near the Norwegian border. The nickel is now shipped away from Zapolyarny for smelting, which Gasumyanov said has led to a precipitous drop in the sulfur dioxide now produced by facilities in that town — from 40,000 tons annually to 6,500 tons. 

The emissions figures for the Kola facilities as whole are dropping as well, and have been doing so since 2016, according to the company’s figures.

This is good news to Norway and residents of the Kola Peninsula, which observed a steady uptick of emissions from the nickel factories for all the years between 2011 and 2015. During that first year, atmospheric emissions of sulfur dioxide reached 134,000 tons and topped out at 154,900 tons during the last year. 

In 2016, however, they decreased to 119,700 tons, and further to 104,100 tons last year. 

Other restructuring plans laid out by Gasumyanov at the conference look like they will deliver further drops in sulfur dioxide. One of these is the construction of an industrial unit that will separate ores as poor and rich, as the poor ores are known to emit more sulfur dioxide than richer ones. When separated, Gasumyanov said poor ores would be sent away from the Kola Peninsula for smelting –– though he didn’t specify where.

The end result of this separation process will lead to a 50 percent drop in the sulfur dioxide emissions blowing over Norway’s border, as measured against levels in 2015.

“Understanding of environmental responsibility in the company did not appear immediately, not in one step,” Gasumyan told the conference. “For a long time, environmental issues were not a priority, but today everything has changed.”

Andrei Zolotkov, who heads Bellona’s offices in Murmansk, said Norilsk Nickel’s efforts with the Kola Mining and Metallurgy plant are having an effect.

With the exception of one incident last March — when freak weather enshrouded one of the company’s towns in a sulfur dioxide smog — Zolotkov noted that officials have come a long way in solving the problem of excess emissions.

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin says Norilsk Nickel’s latest moves — such as inviting environmentalists to take part in its sustainable development conference – are welcome signs of transparency from the company.
But he said it needs to do still more in the way of explaining how it is handling its environmental upgrades.

“The company is no longer denying existing problems, and  moves towards solving them,” said Nikitin. “But it needs to be more transparent; it’s necessary that environmentalist, the international community and the regions where the company does business understand what the company is doing and why — that is what technologies are chosen, what the risks are and what is being done to eliminate them.”

He cited Bellona’s experience developing  a cooperative dialogue with Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear corporation, which was not always open to suggestions from environmentalists. 

“But for many years now, Rosatom has been wisely working with international environmental organizations, the international community and financial institutions, ”Nikitin said.

Such openness, said Nikitin, gives the international community confidence in the information Rosatom provides. The same could be true of Norilsk Nickel, he offered.

“We must trust the information provided,” he said. 
“And when there are questions, the company should explain them. Misunderstanding are bound to arise — this is all part of the process of establishing dialogue. But that itself is impossible without openness. But [Norilsk Nickel] is now cautiously moving forward.”

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