With the modernization efforts, the occasional sulfur odor and deterioration in air quality will disappear.

A view in Finnmark, the northernmost and the easternmost county in Norway. Photograph: Marieji Rousek/Flickr

The Russian mining giant Nornickel is investing more than 91 billion rubles ($1.16 billion) in preparing a comprehensive five-year program to modernize copper processing at its site in Monchegorsk. The production site is located about 250 km from the border with Finland and 300 km from the border with Norway.

Thomas Nielsen, a Norwegian journalist with extensive coverage of oil drilling in the Arctic region, believes the modernization plan is a long-awaited event. β€œIt’s 30 years of overtime, but it’s very enjoyable. This will be the largest reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions in Northern Europe in many, many decades. That’s very good. Not only for nature on the Kola Peninsula in Russia but also for nature and people in the border areas in Finnmark,” Nielsen said in comments to Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK.

In the 1980s, the plant produced about 400,000 tons of sulfur dioxide per year. In recent years, the annual emissions have been down to around 80,000 tons. This is still five times as much as Norway’s total emissions, according to the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (Nilu).

“The situation has improved a lot, but we are still experiencing some episodes here at Svanvik. Most recently in October, we had an episode where we recorded concentrations above the Norwegian limit value,” Nilu researcher Tore Flatlandsmo Berglen said to the NRK.

Most recently in 2019, there were several episodes where the emissions also exceeded the Russian limit value, which is higher than the Norwegian one.

All plants around the smelter are destroyed. It looks like a desert. On the Norwegian side it is not so serious, but in Finnmark the pollution has damaged nature and wildlife. With the closure of the plant, the occasional sulfur odor and deterioration in air quality will disappear.

On the other hand, according to Paul Erik Asfolm, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Bioeconomics (Nibio), heavy metals such as nickel, copper, cobalt and arsenic will affect nature for years to come. “Some harmful substances, such as sulfur dioxide, will change quickly, while heavy metals found at the bottom of rivers, in the ground and in forests will not disappear so quickly”, Asfolm said to the NRK. According to him, their effect will last for a long time.

But a lot has happened since the 90s. Reducing emissions has already had a positive effect. “We see a positive impact on fish. There will be more frogs and more small rodents. Bearded lichen on trees is also starting to appear. We see that the amount of various heavy metals in different organisms is decreasing,” Asfolm said.

Scientists from the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) also follow the news from Russia. Scientists have learned from the media about the modernization program of the Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel and believe that this is good news.

“Yes, we followed the news about this reform with great interest. We learned from the media that the Nickel complex, which is closest to the Finnish border, will be closed and activities will be transferred to the Monchegorsk block, located 250 km from the border. In general, this is good news, but only if the new facilities in Monchegorsk are modern from an environmental point of view,” FMI scientist Pia Anttila said.

She also expressed the hope that these changes in the Russian industry could improve the environment, air quality and the content of heavy metals in the air in the future will decrease compared to the observations of previous years.

According to the company, emissions from the plants in the Kola Peninsula in 2018 dropped to 104,800 tons, a more than 60% reduction since 1998. The plants in Pechenga Rayon, the area located along the border to Norway and Finland, in 2018 emitted 68,190 tons.

That is a 65% drop since 1998 when emissions amounted to 188,700 tons. Further reductions are in the pipeline, the company says. By 2023, the total SO2 emissions will be cut by 75%.