Posted on August 4th, 2020

Our Changing Landscape – Illegal Dumping at the Talnakh Concentrator Plant


When you write an article before you process the imagery, sometimes there are surprise outcomes and this is one of them! The original scope of this article focused on Talnakh and its immediate surroundings – but we just could not find evidence of a recent toxic spill here. However, when we scanned the June 28, 2020 image, we noticed some weird colors to the southwest close to Norilsk. And wouldn’t you know it, this strange yellow-orange-red color can be seen in all of the June images we had of the location but not in the minimal coverage we had from May 31, 2020. A little additional research on the topic showed that Norilsk is one of the world’s most polluted location as the town is built around a smelting plant owned by, yep you guessed it, Norilsk Nickel (notice a similarity in these names?). So in this article we feature two images. The first is a static JPEG of the limited coverage we had of the spill area from a May 31, 2020 3-meter PlanetScope image. And the second is an animation of 3-m PlanetScope data collected on June 8th, 24th and 28th over a broader region. While we certainly cannot say with 100% assurance that this animation shows a toxic spill of some sort, the spill emanates from the holding pond of the smelting plant; there are clearly multiple pipes from the toxic pond to the surrounding tundra; and the mysterious colors disperse in a pattern that suggests it is being carried by water through these shallow tundra ponds to a much larger lake and river to the north. I will leave the conclusion to our readers but we think what happened here is quite obvious… (Images Courtesy: © Planet 2020)

In this monthly feature, we span the globe to examine Our Changing Landscape with a time series of medium-resolution PlanetScope satellite imagery. The PlanetScope constellation dates back to 2016 and collects hundreds of millions of square kilometers of 4 and 5-band 3-meter imagery daily! In the July edition of Our Changing Landscape we looked at the extent of flooding in recent dam breach in Michigan, and for this month’s edition we travel to northern Russia to investigate reports of illegal wastewater dumping at the Talnakh Concentrator Plant.

The PlanetScope Microsat Constellation

PlanetScope is a constellation of more than 150 microsats referred to individually as Doves. Each Dove is able to collect up to 20,000 square kilometers (sq km) per day of 3-meter (m) 4-band multispectral (i.e. blue, green, red and near-infrared [NIR]) imagery; and newly launched SuperDoves collect 5-band multispectral adding in valuable red-edge spectral data. Across the constellation, PlanetScope is archiving more than 200 million sq km of medium-resolution imagery a day, making it the go to source for daily imagery over most locations. This massive archive dates back to 2016, offering the most complete and continuous record of spatial data on the planet since the start of the constellation’s ongoing launch schedule. Collecting 3-meter multispectral imagery is the equivalent of ‘high-resolution’ multispectral data imaged by a 75-centimer (cm) satellite (as this satellite would feature 75-cm panchromatic and 3-m multispectral), making PlanetScope an extremely competitively priced option at just $1.80 per sq km. With well registered images and nearly daily collections of most locations, PlanetScope is the ideal imagery source for this current-events focused series, Our Changing Landscape.

Illegal Wastewater Dumping at the Talnakh Concentrator Plant, Russia

Talnakh is located in north central Russia at the foothills of the Putoran Mountains about 170 miles (270 kilometers) from the Yenisei Gulf which empties into the Kara Sea. The town of about 65,000 residents is home to Norilsk Nickel’s Talnakh Concentrator Plant which, as the name suggests, takes in a stream of crushed nickel ore and creates a more valuable nickel concentrate. From 2015 to 2018, the Russian mining company upgraded both the functionality of the concentrator as well as the environmental protections in place.

Which creates an interesting backdrop for this story, that appears to be reported first by Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian media organization, where they cite multiple incidents of illegal wastewater dumping at the Talnakh Concentrator Plant. According to this report (which has since been confirmed by Norilsk as true), a tailings pond which was rich in heavy metals and chemical surfactants was illegal drained into the surrounding arctic tundra, finding its way into the Kharayelakh River and then into Lake Pyasino. It appears that there were multiple ‘incidents’ during June including a release of 21,000 tons of diesel and at least 6,000 cubic meters (over 1.5 million gallons) of wastewater. When this article was written, we had yet to order and process the PlanetScope images we found from May and June here, so it is unclear what the imagery record will show – but reports claim that local rivers and waterways were dyed red by the dumps so it will be interesting to see what this 3-meter imagery shows!

If you would like to find out more about using 3-meter PlanetScope imagery for your academic studies, engineering projects or any landscape analysis, let us know at sales@apollomapping.com or (303) 993-3863.

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