The air quality in the East Finnmark district in northern Norway has improved drastically since Russian mining giant Nornickel closed its smelter in the Russian town, Nikel.

Photograph: Nornickel

Air pollution in the East Finnmark district in northern Norway on the border with Russia fell last year to the lowest level in almost half a century of observations after Russian mining giant Nornickel closed its smelter in the Russian town of Nikel, Norwegian media reported, citing measurements conducted by the Norwegian Institute of Air Research (Nilu) on behalf of the Norwegian Environment Agency.

“This is good news for the population of Sor-Varanger and nature in East Finnmark,” said Ellen Hambro, the director general of the Norwegian Environment Agency.

After the nickel smelter was shut down two years ago, the levels of sulfur dioxide and heavy metals in the air dropped drastically in 2021 compared to previous years, data showed.

Nilu has carried out measurements in East Finnmark since 1974, and the air quality has been affected by emissions from the Russian smelting industry for several decades.

“Although it was expected that the air quality would improve when large emissions disappear, it is gratifying that we can now document it,” Hambro said.

Photograph: Nornickel

At times, large quantities of sulfur and metals have blown over to Norway. Before the closure of the smelter, there were episodes where the air pollution exceeded the current limit values for outdoor air quality, most recently in 2016 in Finnmark’s Karpdalen. High levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) can have negative health effects for many people, but people with asthma and allergies are among the most vulnerable.

The smelter in Nikel was shut down in late 2020—Nornickel moved production to Monchegorsk some 150 kilometers south of Murmansk and further from the Norwegian border. The environmental impact in northern Norway will be less significant because the plants in Monchegorsk are newer, use better technology and are located at a greater distance from Norway.

The company also owns a plant in Zapolyarny, which will keep some operations, but this has significantly lower emissions of sulfur and metals.

The emissions of sulfur dioxide from the Russian smelters in the last years before the closure were approximately five times as great as Norway’s total emissions of sulfur dioxide. The emissions affected the air quality in East Finnmark and were regularly discussed in bilateral meetings between the Norwegian and Russian authorities.

Measurements of air pollution in East Finnmark have been essential to show how big the problem has been and to inform the local population about when the air could be harmful.

Since the largest emission source in the area is gone, the measurements of air quality in Eastern Finnmark have been scaled down from 2022 on, the environmental agency said.

The continuous monitoring of sulfur dioxide is on hold, while the Norwegian Environment Agency and Nilu will continue with the monitoring of heavy metals in air, precipitation, and inorganic components in precipitation at the measuring station at Svanvik. These measurements will form part of the national monitoring of long-distance transport pollutants.