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Emergency in Russia over huge diesel spill

Moscow (CNN)Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state of emergency in the Siberian city of Norilsk, after 20,000 tons of fuel spilled into a nearby river from a power station.

An environmental group has described the damage as "catastrophic," and the concentration of contaminants in nearby waters has already exceeded permissible levels tens of thousands of times over, according to Russian environmental agency Rosprirodnadzor.

The power station's employees originally tried to contain the spill on their own and did not report the incident to emergency services for two days, head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations Evgeny Zinichev said during a Wednesday meeting chaired by Putin and shown on national television.

"So what, we are going to learn about emergencies from social media now? Are you okay over there?" Putin said, chiding Krasnoyarsk governor, Alexander Uss and managers of the Norilsk-Taimyr Energy Company, which operates the station, for a delayed response after local authorities learned about the spill from social media.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's top law enforcement body, said Tuesday a criminal probe had been launched into 20,000 tons of diesel fuel spilling into a Norilsk river following "unexplained decompression" of a storage tank.

Thawing permafrost?

Nornickel, the energy company's parent, said the foundation of the storage tank possibly sank due to thawing permafrost, highlighting the dangers increasingly warming temperatures pose to Arctic infrastructure and ecosystems, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

"Right now we can assume... that due to abnormally mild summer temperatures recorded in the past years, permafrost could have melted and the pillars under the platform could have sank," said Nornickel chief operating officer, Sergey Dyachenko, according to the TASS news agency.

Northern Asia, especially above the Arctic Circle in Siberia, has seen the most above-normal temperatures on the planet so far in 2020. Through the first four months of the year, the region has seen temperatures more than 4 degrees Celsius above normal on average.

The Arctic region is warming, on average, twice as fast as the rest of the planet, as a consequence of global warming, scientists say.

The local authorities said the spill might take weeks to start a clean up as the region lacks expertise in utilizing such amounts of fuel, the river is not navigable and there are no roads surrounding it. Additional groups of experts are being deployed from other regions following the state of emergency.

"The incident led to catastrophic consequences and we will be seeing the repercussions for years to come," Sergey Verkhovets, coordinator of Arctic projects of Russia's WWF branch, said in a statement. "We are talking about dead fish, polluted plumage of birds, and poisoned animals."

Norilsk has been historically among one of the world's most polluted cities. According to a 2018 NASA study based on satellite data, Norilsk tops the list for worst sulphur dioxide pollution, spewing 1.9 million tons of the gas over the Arctic tundra.

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