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Where the river runs pink: can Norilsk, Russia’s most polluted town, come blank?

When the Daldykan river in Norilsk suddenly turned bright red recently, its appearance was so unsettling that one user quoted the Bible passage about God transforming the Nile into blood.

Norilsk Nickel, the main employer in this industrial city 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle, initially denied any spill into the Daldykan – but later admitted that heavy rain had caused a filtration dam to flood into the river. The incident suggested that, despite Norilsk Nickel’s efforts, environmental concerns are far from resolved in what has long been called Russia’s most polluted city.

As part of plans to clean up Norilsk’s reputation, in June the company shut down its nickel factory: a 74-year-old enterprise that emitted 350,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide each year. But other plants in Norilsk have taken on the nickel factory’s operations, while the final stages of production are being transferred to plants in the Murmansk region, which Norway has long accused of sending “death clouds” of pollution across its border with Russia.

Experts predict that in Norilsk, the health effects could linger for many years to come. “There can be a lot of built-up harm [to people’s health] … It’s naive to think that closing a factory will fix it,” says Boris Revich, head of environmental quality and public health forecasting laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science’s economic forecasting institute. “It certainly will help, but it’s not a cardinal solution to this problem.”

Where the river runs red: can Norilsk, Russia's most polluted city, come clean?
Where the river runs red: can Norilsk, Russia’s most polluted city, come clean?

Starting in 1935, thousands of gulag prisoners died building Norilsk – also one of the coldest cities in the world – next to mineral deposits in the mostly treeless, Arctic tundra. In February 1942, prisoners fired up the nickel factory’s furnace for the first time amid temperatures of -47C, to make nickel for tank armour.

By 2014, Norilsk Nickel was producing 44% of the world’s palladium, 14% of its platinum, 13% of its nickel and 2% of its copper – elements that end up in everything from cellphones to dishwashers to car radiators. While the copper factory impresses visitors with its immense size – huge urns pour molten metal, cranes and railcars rumble along tracks, moulds hiss under cooling water – it is a daunting reminder of the environmental risks posed to the city, and the surrounding region.

By the end of a tour of the factory, I find I have developed a sudden cough. Locals here talk about the black or red snow, and the “blue fog” that causes an itch in the throat. “When gases are coming out of the pipes, you feel it,” says restaurant owner Eldar Aliyev. “From copper it has a sweet taste; from nickel, a different taste. Now, though, you taste it less.”

The Arctic branch of Norilsk Nickel emitted 1,883,000 tonnes of air pollution in 2015, most of it sulphur dioxide, which can harm the respiratory system and kill plants and trees.

With the nickel factory located in the southern part of the city, the copper factory just to its north, and the Nadezhda metallurgical plant 12km to the east, Norilsk was caught between heavy industry no matter which way the wind blew. After a 2007 visit, the Blacksmith Institute declared Norilsk one of the top 10 worst-polluted places in the world.

Sulphur dioxide in the air had exceeded the safe threshold limit in 9.3% of samples over the previous five years, Norilsk Nickel revealed at a 2015 public discussion of its plans to reduce emissions to within that limit. According to a report by Boris Revich in 2007, sulphur dioxide concentrations had at times been 40 times higher than the limit.

According to Gennady Sveshnikov, acting head doctor of Norilsk’s polyclinic, the city’s rates of mortality, cancer and lung disease are no higher than in other regions in Russia. He says its healthcare system is better than in other cities, but concedes that Norilsk’s population is younger on average, with many retired workers leaving for the “mainland” and taking any health problems with them.

But Revich says any analysis of the health effects of factory emissions is limited by a lack of objective pollution data and longitudinal studies following residents.

The Blacksmith Institute reported that children who lived near the copper plant were twice as likely to become ill with ear, nose and throat diseases than those in other districts, and that premature births and late-term pregnancy complications were also frequent in the city. Revich’s study found that blood illnesses were 44% higher, nervous system illnesses 38% higher, and bone and muscle system illnesses 28% higher among children in Norilsk than in the Krasnoyarsk region as a whole.

Although a gas mask was reportedly put on the city’s Lenin monument sometime in the 1970s, residents have rarely protested environmental conditions. “Who is there to complain to? All the money comes from Norilsk Nickel,” says Tatiana, a hairdresser who refused to give her last name.

But in 2010, President Vladimir Putin did complain during a visit to Norilsk, threatening a “significant increase in environmental fines” if the plant wasn’t modernised. By 2013, owner and chairman Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia’s richest men, had begun investments in environmental measures, including the gradual closure of the nickel factory. In exchange, the Russian government cancelled export customs on the company’s nickel and copper for 2016. Norilsk Nickel plans to invest 300bn roubles (£3.5bn) in modernising manufacturing by 2020.

“The situation is getting better, but it’s no time to celebrate and not do anything,” says Denis Koshevoi, a PhD candidate at the Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, who is researching pollution in Norilsk. “The copper factory is only 2km from the city, and it also emits to the city.”

Norilsk Nickel said emissions would be 15% lower after the nickel factory’s closure and the modernisation of the Talnakh enrichment plant. According to deputy director for reconstruction and environment Viktor Ivanov, the company will install 100bn roubles of equipment to manufacture sulphur from emissions at the copper factory and the Nadezhda plant, reducing sulphur dioxide pollution by 75–80% by 2020. But the company also e

Air concentrations of nickel and benzopyrene, both carcinogens, have exceeded annual threshold limits in Norilsk in previous years, as has copper. At Norilsk Nickel’s 2015 public discussion, it admitted nickel was over the limit in 20.7% of samples, and copper in 45.9%.

And as the incident with the red river showed, Norilsk’s industry also pollutes local fishing grounds. Of 29.8 million cubic metres of waste water Norilsk Nickel emitted in 2015, only 5.18m were cleaned according to government standards, according to its yearly report. All samples taken in the Norilka river showed concentrations of copper, iron and oil products exceeding the threshold limit value, and all samples taken in the Talnakh river showed copper and cobalt concentrations over the limit. Revich says soil pollution is another concern.

“It used to be that the smog was overwhelming; now things have gotten cleaner,” says Mikhail Zabelin, a biologist at the Arctic Agriculture and Environment Institute. “But no one thinks that everything is rosy. They need to minimise emissions even more.”

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