Putin calls fuel spill unprecedented for Russia, Greenpeace sees $1.4 billion damage

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin said on Friday the scale of the clear-up operation after a huge fuel spill in the Arctic was unprecedented for Russia, with Greenpeace estimating the environmental damage to waters in the region at $1.4 billion.

FILE PHOTO: A view shows water barriers during recovery works following a diesel fuel leak at a thermal power station near Norilsk in Krasnoyarsk Region, Russia in this handout picture obtained by Reuters June 11, 2020. Russian Emergencies Ministry/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT.

A vast fuel tank lost pressure on May 29 and unleashed 21,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and subsoil near the city of Norilsk, an incident that Greenpeace has compared to the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska.

“Russia has not yet had experience of clearing up such vast pollution from bodies of water as far as I understand,” Putin told officials on state television.

It will take at least 10 years for biodiversity in the waters to fully return where the accident happened, the state fishing agency said at the meeting.

The state environmental watchdog plans to finish its assessment of the damage by July 1, its head told Putin.

Vladimir Chuprov, a Greenpeace activist, said the damage to the water totalled 100 billion roubles ($1.44 billion), a figure that was higher than it should be because of what he said was the slow official response, the TASS news agency reported.

The city of Norilsk is home to mining giant Norilsk Nickel GMKN.MM. The company and emergency specialists are collecting contaminated soil and fuel from local rivers into containers.

Nornickel has already spent 5 billion roubles on the clean-up, its co-owner Vladimir Potanin said. The mining giant also plans to spend 13.5 billion roubles on safety checks for its remaining fuel storage tanks in 2020-2021.

More than 90% of the fuel from the rivers and about 70% of the contaminated soil have been already collected, Nornickel said earlier this week.

Putin previously ordered officials to check all similar fuel storages in Russia, and they plan to complete this process by July 24, they told him.

($1 = 69.3359 roubles)

Reporting by Polina Devitt and Anastasia Lyrchikova; Writing by Tom Balmforth and Polina Devitt; Editing by Mark Heinrich