Oil tank collapse likely caused by melting permafrost

Article by Amanda Doyle

AROUND 21,000 t of diesel has leaked into a Russian river near Norilsk, which is inside the Arctic circle, after a storage tank collapsed. It is believed that posts supporting the tank sank due to melting permafrost following unusually warm weather.  

The spill occurred at a heat and power plant operated by Norilsk-Taymyr Energy Company (NTEC), a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, on 29 May. According to Norilsk Nickel, around 21,000 t of diesel leaked into the Ambarnaya river. The company said that supporting posts at the base of a storage tank suddenly sank. Sergey Dyachenko, First Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Norilsk Nickel, said: “We can assume that abnormally mild temperatures could have caused permafrost thawing resulting in partial subsidence of the tank’s supports.”

NTEC teams are currently assessing the risk of sinking soil under hazardous objects installed in permafrost. Dyachenko said that the tanks are inspected every second year so that negligence was not the cause of the collapse.

A fire also occurred on the site after a car came into contact with the leaked fuel, causing a fire around 300 m2 in area. The fire was contained and extinguished and the driver did not sustain any injuries.

State of emergency

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state of emergency following the spillage. According to the BBC, Alexander Uss, the governor of the Krasnoyarsk region where Norilsk is situated, only heard of the incident two days afterwards when information appeared on social media. The BBC also reported that Yevgeny Zinichev, the Russian Minister for Emergencies, said that Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill before alerting the ministry. Putin reportedly berated Sergei Lipin, the head of NTEK, for failing to report the incident.

The state of emergency was called by Putin to bring in more resources for the cleanup. Three criminal investigations have also been launched and Vyacheslav Starostin, the director of the plant, has been taken into custody.


The diesel has spread 12 km in the river, turning it red, and cleanup will be difficult as the river is too shallow for barges and the remote region has no roads, according to The Guardian. The BBC reported that Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia's environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said that it could cost 100bn roubles (US$1.5bn) and take five to ten years to clean up.

Containment booms have been deployed to collect oil and stop it spreading further. According to WWF Russia, this has stopped the diesel reaching the Pyasino lake. “The successful containment doesn’t mean that toxic elements hasn’t got into the water of the lake,” said Aleksey Knizhnikov, Head of the Program for the Business Environmental Responsibility at WWF Russia. “Unfortunately the most poisonous elements of diesel fuel are aromatic compounds like benzol, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, which will massively mix with the water and it is impossible to collect them using oil booms.”

According to Norilsk Nickel, as of 3 June, 262 t of diesel has been collected near the site, 800 m3 of contaminated soil has been removed, and 80 t of fuel has been collected from the river. Contaminated soil has been moved to a temporary storage area with a waterproof coating on the ground to prevent further contamination of the environment.

“At present the spill is contained in the Ambarnaya River by several cascades of booms, and the Marine Rescue Service experts are removing the contaminants from the water surface to have them processed thereafter,” said Dyachenko. “We will engage the best environmental minds and researchers to clean up the territory and prevent detrimental consequences for water bodies.”

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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