Environmental whistleblower Vasily Ryabinin risked his career and his family’s future in their city of Norilsk, Russia, to go public about a massive oil spill caused by Russian oil giant Nornickel. Ryabinin defied his employer Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian state environmental agency when he quit his job to report on the extent of the ecological disaster.
On May 29, a holding tank on the river Daldykan leaked over 20,000 tons of diesel into the water. The diesel spread quickly down the tributary river and into the nearby Lake Pyasino, where it ran towards the Arctic Ocean. Hours after the spill began, the area was cordoned off by security personnel as Nornickel tried to contain information about the spill. Ryabinin’s job at Rosprirodnadzor was to examine the spill and report back to his superiors. He quickly found that Rosprirodnadzor was not interested in learning the full extent of the damage potentially caused by the spill. Russian state-sponsored TV stations ran faked aerial photographs of the spill being contained before reaching Lake Pyasino.
Rosprirodnadzor initially claimed that the area of the Daldykan river and Pyasino Lake shown covered in oil was just a thin layer on the top of the water. However, Ryabinin and environmentalist YouTube blogger, Georgy Kavanosyan, used the state-approved satellite images and calculated that based on the surface area of the spill, even the most conservative estimate of total oil spilled, the spill would have to be at least 50 meters deep.
Ryabinin and his boss traveled to the banks of the Daldykan as soon as they heard about the spill. They took pictures and samples of the water and tried to gain access to the Nornickel plant that caused the spill but were denied access. They began to expect that a spill of this size would have already reached Lake Pyasino. Frustrated by the security surrounding the Lake, Ryabinin arranged for a helicopter to take them there before they were told by Rosprirodnadzor not to investigate the catastrophe any further. Ryabinin then decided to go public.
On June 7, Ryabinin posted what he knew about the spill, putting the crisis into the international spotlight. President Vladimir Putin called for a meeting with Vladimir Potanin, the head of Nornickel, in early June. Nornickel agreed to pay more than $140 million to compensate for the spill, and Rosprirodnadzor admitted that Lake Pyasino had been contaminated, a rare reversal of stance by the department. More recently, Rosprirodnadzor has reevaluated the spill and asked Nornickel to pay over $2 billion.
Russia does not have the same comprehensive system of laws as the U.S. that protects environmental whistleblowers. The Russian government routinely downplays ecological disasters at great cost to the environment and population. While Ryabinin’s coverage of the disaster was essential to reaching a full acknowledgment by the government of the crisis, he and his family have faced discrimination in their hometown of Norilsk. Ryabinin has since decided that they will soon have to find a new place to live. “This is quite sad because I really love my city, the North and I don’t want to leave,” he said. “But I did this knowing that I will not be able to live and work here after all of this.”
Although the U.S.’ whistleblower protection laws are stronger than those in Russia, it is important to remember the price foreign whistleblowers often pay when they stand up and do the right thing.