Ni in my backyard

Foreground | Stopping Russian sulfur-dioxide pollution from a notorious nickel smelter may take economic arguments

A scorched-earth economic policy (Photo: Ninaras)

Kevin McGwin

The good news first: Between 2001 and 2018, a Russian smelting operation on the Kola peninsula owned by Nornickel reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas that causes acid rain, by almost half, according to company data. This without any reported productivity losses. The company has promised a further 25% reduction by 2023.

It is hard to put a price on environmental protection, but the cost of the emissions reduction hints at how seriously Nornickel now takes the problem; it expects to spend $17 billion on the effort.

That will go a long way towards improving air quality for those living in the city of Nikel, a city of 12,000 that takes its name from the metal that is the smelter’s main product.

The bad news is that the plant has been contaminating the environment for 80 years, rendering the area to the south, where most of the emissions it belches out wind up, a wasteland. Those who live in the city are less affected, but wind shifts can cause pollution levels to rise as high as 10 times above what is considered safe. In the short-term, inhaling sulfur dioxide makes breathing difficult, while prolonged exposure of the sort the people of Nikel experience is related to lung illness and premature death.


Occasional shifts in the wind that bring clouds from Nornickel over the Norwegian border, resulting in what have been labelled locally as ‘death clouds’, are accompanied by alerts that warn residents to remain indoors until the coast is clear. The name first began to be used almost three decades ago and helped to make Norwegians aware of the issue, but it was not until last year that Nornickel announced its final push to bring down emissions as low as possible.

Why the change? Some of this may be due to a Norwegian strategy of constant dialogue. Since 1992, the Norwegian-Russian environmental protection commission (which replaced a similar forum that existed during the Soviet era) has met scores of times. During the next such meeting, on Tuesday, Ola Elvestuen, the Norwegian environment minister, has pledged to take his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Kobylkin, to task for a cloud that floated over Finnmark on 25 Jan.

More of a catalyst is likely the economic incentives for doing so. Failing to cut emissions will result in Moscow issuing a crippling fine. So, instead of releasing it the sulfur dioxide it the smelting process produces, Norilsk will run it through a facility that will combine it with limestone to make gypsum, used in sheetrock and fertilizers. Such products could be sold, but there is no shortage of the material; for now, it will either be stockpiled or discarded.

Equally motivational may be a growing movement amongst carmakers to shun irresponsible producers when sourcing nickel for the batteries that power their electric cars. More recently, local officials in Norway have called for a public shaming of producers of other battery-powered devices, such as smartphones.

Mr Elvestuen, in advance of this week’s meeting, made it clear that Oslo would keep pressure on Moscow until the air quality around Nornickel was acceptable. Speaking frankly will win him points at home, but to clear the air he will need to be able to swing a couple of big industries in Nornickel’s face.

When: 19 Feb
Where: Moscow, Russia

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