Norilsk set to avoid suit
MOSCOW/ST PETERSBURG, April 9 (Reuters) – Norilsk Nickel appears likely to avoid a $178 million pollution suit after the head of Russia’s environment agency on Wednesday disowned a claim filed by his outspoken deputy.
Rosprirodnadzor head Vladimir Kirillov told reporters his agency had not brought any suit against Norilsk, the world’s largest nickel and palladium miner and the subject of rival merger proposals by Kremlin-linked billionaires.
His comments contradict a statement issued in February by his deputy, Oleg Mitvol, who said he had lodged a claim against Norilsk for the alleged pollution of Siberian rivers.
“That announcement was made by my deputy, Oleg Mitvol. I have requested an inspection at the place in question and so far have not received an answer,” Kirillov said.
“Those suits brought by Mitvol are his position, not that of Rosprirodnadzor,” the agency’s head said.
Mitvol’s previous comments have stoked concerns of growing state involvement in Russia’s natural resources. The outspoken official led a 2006 campaign against Royal Dutch Shell’s Sakhalin-2 oil and gas group that subsided only after it sold control to state gas export monopoly Gazprom.
Norilsk’s future ownership is under question, as its billionaire co-owners Mikhail Prokhorov and Vladimir Potanin work out a way to divide their varied assets.
Prokhorov has agreed to sell a stake to aluminium firm United Company RUSAL, majority owned by Oleg Deripaska, while Norilsk’s board is examining a separate proposal to merge with the assets of iron ore and steel baron Alisher Usmanov.
The apparent in-fighting at Rosprirodnadzor, a division of the Natural Resources Ministry, adds uncertainty to the claim Mitvol lodged with the Krasnoyarsk regional arbitration court.
Kirillov, appointed to his post in January by Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, has abolished the right of his deputies to file law suits with courts and prosecutors’ offices.
The court, in a document seen by Reuters, has said it has taken no action as it doubts whether Mitvol has the authority to launch such a claim. It has asked the claimant to supply proof of his authority by April 21 or it will return the documents. But Mitvol himself told Reuters on Wednesday he had every right to file the suit against Norilsk.
“The judge has not understood. My position is the deputy head of the state inspectorate and, as an official, I have filed the suit with the court,” he said, making reference to an administrative code and Russian government order.
“It is not only within my power. It is my obligation.” Norilsk Nickel, in a letter to Natural Resources Minister Yuri Trutnev dated March 27 and obtained by Reuters, challenged Mitvol’s powers and methods for defining the volume of damage.
“I ask you to order Rosprirodnadzor to send a request to the Krasnoyarsk regional arbitration court to revoke the law suit and subsequently examine the possibility of an out-of-court settlement,” read the letter signed by Norilsk Chief Executive Denis Morozov.
Norilsk, 320 km (200 miles) inside the Arctic Circle, is ranked among the world’s 10 most polluted places by the New York-based Blacksmith Institute.
The company, which mines a fifth of the world’s nickel and more than half its palladium, has pledged a large portion of its $1 billion annual investment to 2011 will be spent on reducing sulphur dioxide emissions and other ecological improvements.