June 5, 2020 / 5:02 PM / a month ago

Putin chides Nornickel, orders law change after Arctic fuel spill

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin chided the billionaire boss of Norilsk Nickel on Friday over a huge Arctic fuel spill and ordered changes to the law to try to prevent such a disaster from happening again.

An aerial view shows containment booms installed at the site of a huge leak of diesel fuel into the river after an accident at a power plant outside Norilsk, in this handout picture taken from a helicopter in Krasnoyarsk region, Russia June 2, 2020. Picture taken June 2, 2020. MMC Norilsk Nickel's Public Relations Department/Handout via REUTERS

Greenpeace has compared the scale of last week’s accident near the northern city of Norilsk, where 21,000 tonnes of diesel poured into rivers and subsoil, to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

Putin has declared a state of emergency in the region and complained of what he said was a bungled state response, while Russia’s Prosecutor General’s office on Friday ordered a review of all hazardous objects built on permafrost after saying it looked like the ground beneath a fuel tank had subsided.

In an online meeting, Putin asked officials to amend Russian law to try avoid similar accidents in future and criticised Norilsk Nickel President Vladimir Potanin for not replacing the source of the pollution - the fuel tank - in a timely fashion.

“If you had changed it on time there would not have been this ecological damage and the company would not have had to foot these (clean-up) costs. Study this as closely as possible inside the company,” Putin told Potanin during the televised meeting.

Potanin, the largest shareholder in Norilsk Nickel (Nornickel) with a 34.6% stake, said he couldn’t estimate any potential fines from the authorities, but the firm would cover clear-up costs set to top 10 billion roubles ($145 million).

Shares in Nornickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, were up 3% in Moscow after the meeting, having previously been hit by fallout from the disaster.

Putin’s spokesman earlier on Friday dismissed the idea of the government ousting Potanin after a Russian lawmaker said he should go following the spill.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters the priority was to clear up the May 29 spill and an investigation would decide if anyone was guilty.

The RBC media portal reported earlier on Friday that a Russian safety watchdog had warned a Nornickel subsidiary in 2017-2018 about violations at the Arctic fuel site.

Additional reporting by Anastasia Lyrchikova, Vladimir Soldatkin and Darya Korsunskaya; Writing by Polina Devitt and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and Mark Potter

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