Pollution from northwest Russia shrouds Arctic Norway

The smelter in Nikel is only a few kilometres from Russia’s border to Norway. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)
Cecilie Hansen, former Mayor of Kirkenes in Arctic Norway, says the plant in Nikel, northwest Russia, should be forced to reduce production over pollution exceeding air quality standards.

“The factory reduces production when sulfur dioxide levels in the town of Nikel exceeds certain concentration. Why shouldn’t they be forced to do the same when their poisonous smoke cover our homes?” Cecilie Hansen asks rhetorically.

Hansen lives near Svanvik, the area where municipal authorities on the Norwegian side of the border on Friday triggered the health-warning alarm.

“Persons with heart and cardiovascular diseases should limit outdoor activities and stay away from the Svanvik area,” the warning sent by SMS to all mobile phones in the area reads.

The same warning is posted on the municipality’s portal. This is the first time modern mobile phone warning has been sent in regards to air-pollution in the Norwegian border area.

“It is the highest levels we have seen over the last two years,” says Tore Berglen to the Barents Observer. Berglen is Senior Scientist with the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (NILU) and is in charge of the measuring system in the border areas to the Kola Peninsula. NILU has a branch department at the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO) centre at Svanhovd in the Pasvik valley.

“We trigger the alarm when sulfur dioxide concentrations exceed 500 microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3) for three successive hours,” Tore Berglen explains.

“Today, we have seen levels up to 7-800 µg/m3 and it seems to continue.”

“The factories in Zapolyarny and Nikel have reduced emission over the last few years, but right now, we have a cloud of sulfur dioxide over the Svanvik area in the Pasvik valley, Tore Berglen says.

Strong sulfur smell

Cecilie Hansen, who lives not too far away from the air-filter station at Svanvik, the sulfur is easy to smell.

“Over the last days the sulfur smell has been really bad. So bad I actually can feel a sulfur taste inside my mouth when working outdoor,” Hansen says to the Barents Observer.

She calls for an urgent cross-border agreement forcing the factory to reduce production when the wind blows heavy pollution towards Norwegian territory.

“Norwegian authorities must show vigor and leadership here,” she says and underlines that also must apply to the current mayor of Kirkenes which she claims is way too passive when it comes to protesting cross-border pollution from Nikel.

“We can’t give up before the case is solved. The pollution issue must be brought up at every single occasion.”

Unacceptable, says current Kirkenes mayor
Rune Rafaelsen, mayor of Kirkenes, in Arctic Norway. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

The current Kirkenes Mayor, Rune Rafaelsen, says what is happening is not acceptable.

“I have brought up the pollution with Norwegian authorities, directly with Russia’s minister in charge of ecology Sergey Donskoy. The owners [of the factory] must be held responsible,” Rune Rafaelsen says to the Barents Observer.

He says the only positive now is that the direct warning by mobile phones to the people in the area worked as planned.

Pollution from the Nikel plant has been a thorn in Norwegian-Russian cross-border relations for 30 years.

Improvements not enough

Tore Berglen says the situation has improved, pointing to both the closure of one the three furnaces in Nikel and technological modernization of the briquetting plant in Zapolyarny.

“However, over the last two weeks we have measured pollution levels over the maximum criteria two times. First time on the night between the 13th and 14th of January, and now on Friday,” Berglen tells.

Pollution coming out of walls and roofs of the smelter in Nikel. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

Roshydromet, Russia’s state meteorological agency in charge of measuring sulfur dioxide levels in Nikel, confirms high levels of air pollution over the last few days. The agency publishes daily online measurements.

On Wednesday this week, the levels in Nikel and Zapolyarny were observed to be more than 10 times higher than the maximum allowed and Roshydromet warned the factory that reduced production could be enforced.

In Murmansk, the environmental watchdog Bellona follows the situation with worry.

“I would say that according to Russian weather forecast agency, the weather conditions are very bad for production, and the maximum concentrations of SO2 in Nikel are much higher than allowed for several days,” says Bellona’s Anna Kireeva in a Skype conversation with the Barents Observer.

“In a larger scale the company decreases its emissions, but it shall do something about the concentrations in the atmosphere,” Kireeva explains.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut, Canada iron mine gets federal OK to up production with regional Inuit support, CBC News

Finland: Arctic Council experts gather in Helsinki for black carbon meeting, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Iron mines in Arctic Norway could soon re-open, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: New Finnish technology to slash nickel mining pollution in northwestern Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Many towns in Sweden seek funds to clean up polluted sites, Radio Sweden

United StatesAmerica’s most toxic site is in the Alaskan Arctic, Cryopolitics Blog

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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