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By John Helmer in Moscow

Smelter pollution charges fly in Rusal-Norilsk clash.

The fight for control of Russia’s largest mining company, Norilsk Nickel, has turned into a battle over smelter emissions and environmental safety.

UC Rusal (Russian Aluminium), the Russian aluminium monopoly, fired the first shot as part of its hostile takeover attempt of Norilsk Nickel, the leading nickel and palladium exporter in the world. Rusal is controlled by Oleg Deripaska; Norilsk Nickel by Vladimir Potanin. Never before have these Russian oligarchs tangled so publicly and directly with Russia’s growing ecological movements, and the internationals — Greenpeace, Greenline and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Rusal took the offensive after losing Russian government support for the takeover, following a meeting Deripaska and Potanin had with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin on July 28.

On August 12, Rusal dispatched an open letter to Vladimir Strzhalkovsky, a former government administrator, and Sechin’s candidate as chief executive of Norilsk Nickel. In its letter to him, Rusal chief executive Alexander Bulygin claimed to be “seriously concerned with the environmental situation relating to production activities at Norilsk Nickel’s facilities in Russia. According to the state environmental monitoring service and international public organisations, the environmental situation at Norilsk is on the brink of catastrophe.”

According to Rusal’s letter to Norilsk Nickel, “we have extensive practical experience of implementing such programmes. A part of UC RUSAL – the Engineering and Construction Division – has independently developed and implemented an environmental programme at one of the world’s largest aluminium smelters in Krasnoyarsk. Experts at the International Aluminium Institute have confirmed the effectiveness of this programme.”

Offering Rusal’s clean-up to Norilsk Nickel, the letter also referred to Greenpeace statistics, charging Norilsk Nickel with releasing waste water which “exceed the Maximum Permissible Levels of heavy metals (zinc, iron, nickel, copper), oil products, phosphates and nitrates by dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of times.”

“The key processes for aluminium and nickel production are similar: extraction of raw materials, hydrochemistry and electrolysis. UC RUSAL has accumulated extensive experience in resolving environmental issues by addressing them at aluminium smelters, which were constructed without consideration of environmental impacts, dozens of years ago. We are therefore confident that UC RUSAL specialists could successfully prepare a feasibility study of the environmental modernisation programme required for Norilsk Nickel, which will be a starting point for developing concrete steps to improve the environmental situation in the region. We will prepare this feasibility study at no cost to Norilsk Nickel.”

On September 29, according to Russian press announcements, the US-based Waterkeeper Alliance, together with the international Greenline movement, joined a Russian counterpart organization, Keepers of the Rivers, to charge Rusal and its Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Plant (KrAZ) with dumping poisonous waste, and contaminating the soil of two villages, Korkino and Peschanka, near the smelter. The charges have been filed with the federal environment inspectorate, Rosprirodnadzor, and also the Krasnoyarsk region prosecutor’s office.

Maxim Shingarkin, director of Keepers of the Rivers, said at a Moscow press conference:”We received complaints and filed a claim against Rusal’s KRAZ, according to the law. Now Rosprirodnadzor will inspect KrAZ, or will authorize us to conduct an independent inspection.”

Marat Khairulin, the press secretary of Rosprirodnadzor, was not available to confirm his agency’s inspection of KrAZ. Deputy head of Rosprirodnadzr, Oleg Mitvol, told Mineweb that Shingarkin’s organization had initiated the request for inspection, but that “there is no order for the check yet.” He added there has been an order from the prosecutor’s office for KrAZ to construct water-treatment facilities.

State news agencies, RIA-Novosti and Tass, have reported Rosprirodnadzor as saying the agency is studying the request for inspection, but officials stop short of saying what they have decided to do. “The issue of carrying out a complex ecological check of KrAZ, in conjunction with the Office of Public Prosecutor, is under consideration. It is not excluded that the decision on check will be taken in the near future.”

Nikolay Nikolaev, head of the Public Committee of the Ecological Movement of Krasnoyarsk, told Mineweb there has been company lobbying of the local and federal state agencies to change the reporting criteria and mitigate the appearance of ecological problems. “Twice I have complained to the district council and they promised to make a check. Then they introduced the stupid excuse that they were using the wrong workbook to calculate pollution emissions. I’ve met with their director Steblin, then the director became Dukatsky, now they have director Zhukov. I was not able to meet with him, although I called several times for a meeting. What they did was to change the emissions norm. Unbelievable.”

According to Nikolaev, Rusal has introduced some ecologically safe measures in the smelter process, but there remain serious problems. “They have 24 blocks — two are working on burned anodes, which are ecologically safe; the other 22 are working on self-burning anodes, which bring all this dirt and pollution to the atmosphere. The only way to recover is to turn the entire smelter on to burned anodes. But they refuse, as this is costly.”

There are differences between the local ecological organizations. According to Nikolaev, he has evidence that in 2004 the government authorized level of airborne emissions was 56,000 tonnes. In fact, he claims, 92,000 tonnes were emitted. Nikolai Zubov, head the Krasnoyarsk regional ecological union, is reported in the press as saying that the plant’s old management used under-estimates of emissions, and this has made the current reporting appear to exaggerate the problem. “I consider that the situation has improved in 2004, when the new proprietor has shown the present figures and began to be engaged in a real decrease of emissions”, Zubov said. It is not clear what change of management Zubov is referring to, since KrAZ has been under Rusal control since the year 2000.

The Russian chapter of Greenpeace has so far not intervened publicly in the clash between Norilsk Nickel and Rusal, or in the smelter pollution claims. Last year, though, Greenpeace issued calls objecting to two of Rusal’s projects – construction of a new power source for smelting at the Boguchansk hydro-electric power complex in Krasnoyarsk region; and of a new nuclear reactor in the fareastern Khabarovsk region.

Rusal declines to answer questions from Mineweb. A Rusal spokesman is reported in the Russian press as denying that Rosprirodnadzor has started a new inspection of KrAZ.

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