Oils spills in the arctic have happened before. Fuel extraction continues to be prioritised over wellbeing and safety. Civilisations’ pathological need to maintain the post-industrial way of life means we are primed to believe oil and mining extraction is a necessary evil.

By Aimee Wild

The Yenisei river

The Yenisei river is the fifth-longest river system in the world, and the largest to drain into the Arctic Ocean. Rising in a region in Mongolia, it flows north before draining into the Yenisei Gulf in the Kara Sea. The Yenisei is home to over 55 native fish species as well as numerous other species such as trout, pike, perch and carp. The river valley is habitat for numerous flora and fauna including Siberian pine and larch. There are also wonderful bird species present in the watershed and migrating tundra reindeer benefit from grazing the ranges along the Yenisei River during wintertime. Nomadic tribes such as the Ket people and the Yugh people have lived along the banks of the Yenisei river since ancient times, without harming the natural balances within nature.

Oil spill in the Yenisei

In 2009 there was a catastrophic oil spill; 40 tons spilt into the Yenisei River. 40 tons of oil that slipped 40 miles downriver, killing and harming everything it met. Environmental campaigners warned us a few years later that the oil terminals built in northern Russia, where the river Yenisei meets the Arctic Ocean, lack the technology to deal with oil spills. An academic article published a few years after that described the Yenisei as “contaminated” and “dirty”, describing how this once beautiful, clear body of water, the Yenisei, has changed in terms of thermal regimes (due to the function of the nearby plants). The paper describes how the structural rearrangements of biological communities have resulted in a decrease in stability of the aquatic ecosystem. In other words, the river is dying.

The Ambarnaya River

We have had unseasonably warm weather for this time of year, so it should come as no surprise that melting permafrost in the Arctic has created ground subsidence. This includes the ground that fuel storage tanks were stood on. If you read mainstream media and the comments from the company responsible, it is this subsidence that is believed to have caused the most recent oil spill. An estimated 20,000 tons of diesel oil was spilt into Ambarnaya River, contaminating an estimated 135 square miles of water. The company responsible, Norilsk Nickel, is a Russian based company who has mining operations in five different countries, on three continents worldwide. In 2019, Norilsk Nickel made a profit of 5.97 billion U.S. dollars. That’s almost six billion dollars made from destroying the land we live on, ripping great holes in the earth to extract the earth’s precious resources.

Have you ever seen images of an oil spill, of the deaths of thousands of aquatic mammals, birds, fish and plants?

The images haunt me. The suffering of innocent lives haunts me. So too does the knowledge that, even if a clean-up operation is ordered, oil in the rivers will stay there for years and continue to harm the environment, just like in the Yenisei.

The Russian Investigative Committee (SK) has already started a criminal case over the pollution in the Ambarnaya. There is certainly a case of negligence, as well as the possibility that they tried to hide the catastrophe: there was a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill. No one ever is really brought to justice. The rich and powerful carry on making money from destroying Mother Earth, governments carry on making laws to enable them and the judicial system lightly taps them on the wrist. It is cowardly and deeply ironic that the extraction company is attempting to abdicate responsibility by blaming melting permafrost for the accident.

If I had my way, I would strip every dollar from these corporations and the people who stand to profit. I would plough the money into restoring health to the area affected and to rewilding our planet, to protecting Earth’s precious wildlife. I would close every mining company, every oil extraction company and every fracking company. This disaster will result in an increased toxification of an already overloaded water system, the death and destruction of our non-human brothers and sisters; fish, plants, insects and birds. The last major oil spill in Russia destroyed huge amounts of plant life, animals, and fish, still the companies can continue, at high risk to the natural world. Respiratory disease in humans in surrounding villages to the Yenisei rose by a third in the year after the major oil spill.

The cost of mining and extracting oil and other substances is too high. The fossil fuel dependent culture cannot continue. The destructive effects of this recent oil spill, yet uncalculated, are likely to be equally astronomical.  “The incident led to catastrophic consequences and we will be seeing the repercussions for years to come,” Sergey Verkhovets, coordinator of Arctic projects for WWF Russia, said in a statement. “We are talking about dead fish, polluted plumage of birds, and poisoned animals.”

Nobody knows how many oil spills, chemical agricultural leaching or pesticides sprays our waterways can tolerate. If feels like a moot point to talk about system change amongst so much devastation.


Shaparev, N. Ya., & Andrianova, A. V. (2018). The Yenisei River in Terms of Sustainable Water Management, Geography and Natural Resources, 39(4), 307-315.

Aimee Wild is an educator, activist, strong defender of social justice and the natural world and a member of DGR Europe.

Featured image: Oil spill photo via European Space Agency. CC BY SA 3.0.