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The Oil Spill From Russian Nickel Mine Is Moving Toward The Arctic Ocean


There is an environmental disaster developing in the Arctic. More than 150,000 barrels of diesel oil from a mining complex spewed into a river in northern Russia late last month. It is the biggest oil spill in the Arctic to date. And now the oil slick is moving towards the Arctic Ocean. NPR international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Most Arctic experts agree that the three great concerns for the frozen north are climate change, stranded ships and oil spills.

VICTORIA HERRMANN: To get a response to an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean means that you have to move infrastructure, expertise, ships from more southern ports up to the Arctic.

NORTHAM: Victoria Herrmann is managing director of the Arctic Institute, a research group. She says even once help arrives in this remote, inhospitable region, it's difficult to work there.

HERRMANN: Currents are changing, and the ice and water shelf are changing. And you have an uncertainty of where sea ice is and how easy it is to get to the spill itself.

NORTHAM: Now Arctic nations are bracing as the oil spill from the Norilsk Nickel mine snakes through northern Russian rivers. Rob Huebert, an Arctic specialist at the University of Calgary, says Russian efforts to contain the spill have not worked.

ROB HUEBERT: It has now moved into a major lake. And there's another river system that it's feared that it's going to enter. And once it gets into that river system, it can't be stopped. Then parts of it will enter into the Arctic Ocean.

NORTHAM: From there, Huebert says, it's unclear where it will go, whether it will head towards Finland and Norway or the U.S. and Canada or just hug the coastline of Russia. For many Arctic specialists, it was not a matter of if there would be an oil spill or other industrial accident but when.

MIKE SFRAGA: I think what the spill represents is the future Arctic, unfortunately.

NORTHAM: Mike Sfraga is director of the Polar Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He says the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the global average, especially in Siberia where the spill occurred and where the landscape is shaped by permafrost that's melting.

SFRAGA: This is a major concern 'cause you have oil pipelines, oil tanks, gas tanks, houses. It's literally built on permafrost that's thawing under our feet.

NORTHAM: And increasingly starting to crumble away, which is believed to be what caused the oil tank to rupture at the Norilsk mine. Sfraga says all Arctic nations have been talking about the eroding permafrost for a long time.

SFRAGA: But unfortunately, it has taken this event in Russia to be the clarion call to make that from a small U to a capital U on the urgency graph.

NORTHAM: In 2013, the Arctic Council, a group of eight nations, developed a response plan for oil spills. Canadian researcher Rob Huebert says the plan calls on members to share information and resources in this type of crisis if the country where the spill occurs asks for help. Huebert says the problem is relations between Russia and its fellow council members have become increasingly tense since Russia invaded Ukraine.

HUEBERT: I think we're going to have a very interesting test, if this oil spill does in fact make its way into the Arctic Ocean, as to whether or not good sense and cooperation can persevere even in the face of the deteriorating geopolitical environment.

NORTHAM: The Arctic Council says, so far, Russia has not put out a call for help with the oil spill.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.