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Despite initially denying that there was anything wrong when the Daldykan River in Russia turned bright red virtually overnight, on Tuesday, Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel manufacturer, has admitted responsibility. But for the Siberian city of Norilsk, it's just another sad chapter in its history.

Nickel manufacturing in Norilsk generates millions of tons of air pollution.Gelio / LiveJournal

The city of 175,000, which was founded in 1935 as a slave labor camp, was named one of the world's most polluted places on Earth by the Blacksmith Institute. WikiTravel advises potential visitors that "a substantial stay could jeopardize your health."

Norilsk owes its unfortunate accolade and its economy to some of the largest deposits of nickel on Earth. Mining began in the 1930s, and by 1953 was producing 35 percent of the Soviet Union's total nickel output, 12 percent of its copper, 30 percent of its cobalt and 90 percent of its platinum group metals. Today, it produces 20 percent of the world's nickel and 50 percent of its palladium.

Norilsk Nickel's 1942 Plant, named for the year it began operations, produced about 120,000 metric tons (132,000 U.S. tons) a year. The plant was decommissioned on Aug. 26.

The company, headquartered in Moscow, which recently rebranded itself as Nornickel, issued a statement Monday attributing the Daldykan River event to abnormally heavy rains in the region that caused a dam containing tailings to overflow.

"Short-term river color staining with iron salts presents no hazards for people and river fauna," the statement declares.

Others are not so sure. Greenpeace Russia spokesman Alexei Kiselyov told Agency France-Presse (AFP), "You can't just say that it's no big deal." He noted that the remote area made any investigation more difficult and that the company controls access to the area. The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has opened an investigation.

Indigenous people in the area accuse the company of weak safety standards. They are concerned about the effects of the spill downstream, where they fish in another river.

The now-shuttered plant was responsible for more than 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc released into the atmosphere every year. The effects of decades of pollution are stark. Vegetation can't grow within a 20-mile radius. Acid rain covers an area the size of Germany. Heavy metal pollution is so great that the soil itself can be mined.

"Life expectancy is 10 years less than in other regions of Russia, the risk of cancer is two times higher and respiratory diseases are widespread," reports the Daily Mail. The city's polluted air may be responsible for 37 percent of child deaths and 21.6 percent of adult mortality.

Norilsk Nickel has a history of environmental problems, including a 2014 discharge of 145,000 pounds of nickel and other contaminants into the Kokemäki River in Finland. Finnish officials detected cobalt, copper, lead and cadmium. Mussels in the Kokemäki River died, and the chief executive officer of the Harjavalta Norilsk Nickel plant admitted that they were probably due to the company's actions.

For its part, the company insists that environmental responsibility is a priority, with a strategic plan in place since 2005.

In its 2015 annual report, Norilsk Nickel states, "The company has also put in place an integrated environmental reporting system embracing all of the group's operations and monitoring the achievement of environmental objectives." It says that wastewater charges "have been consistently reduced" and 99 percent of the company's wastes are classified as non-hazardous.

Norilsk Nickel also says that the shutdown of the 1942 Plant will remove 600 sources of air pollutants and cites the action as part of its environmental program. But more than seven decades of pollution and toxic waste have taken a toll on the environment and health of the Siberian community, which won't easily be restored.

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The Daldykan river near the industrial city of Norilsk in Russia turned an unnatural bright red on Tuesday, with some locals pointing fingers at industrial waste stemming from a nearby nickel plant.

Russian authorities are investigating the situation and are assessing any possible environmental damage. Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment said Wednesday that a broken pipeline leaking "an unidentified chemical" from the Nadezhda Metallurgical Plant owned by Norilsk Nickel might be the culprit, CNN reported.

Norilsk Nickel is the world's largest producer of nickel and palladium. The company has denied any wrongdoing, as the Guardian reported from state news agency RIA Novosti.

The "color of the river today doesn't differ from its usual condition," the company said, but added that production has been temporarily reduced as the situation is being monitored.

The Daldykan river near the industrial city of Norilsk in Russia turned an unnatural bright red on Tuesday, with some locals pointing fingers at industrial waste stemming from a nearby nickel plant.

The Siberian Times reported that Norilsk Nickel has since provided photos of the river with a normal color to local news agency Tayga Info. However, as the Siberian Times noted, there is reason to suspect that the company did not provide a photo of the same stretch of river.

"As far as we know, the color of the river is today no different from normal," a company source said.

Norilsk, located in the Arctic Circle, is the world's northernmost city and is covered with snow for up to 270 days of the year. The city not only has an odious history as a Siberian slave labor camp, it's one of the world's most polluted places, as TIME magazine described:

"Home to the world's largest heavy metal smelting complex, more than 4 million tons of cadmium, copper, lead, nickel, arsenic, selenium and zinc are released into the air every year. Air samples exceed the maximum allowance for both copper and nickel, and mortality from respiratory diseases is much higher than in Russia as a whole."

"Within 30 miles (48 km) of the nickel smelter there's not a single living tree," Blacksmith Institute president Richard Fuller told TIME. "It's just a wasteland."

According to NASA, the city has some of the largest nickel, copper and palladium deposits on Earth, meaning that mining and smelting are major industries and has led directly to severe pollution, acid rain and smog.

"By some estimates, 1 percent of the entire global emissions of sulfur dioxide comes from this one city," NASA stated. "Heavy metal pollution near Norilsk is so severe that it is now economically feasible to mine the soil, which has been polluted so severely that it has economic grades of platinum and palladium."

Norilsk in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. The city is a major hub for mining and smelting ore.Flickr

The river has changed red in the past, Denis Koshevoi, a Ph.D candidate at the Vernadsky Institute for Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry who researches pollution in the area, explained to the Guardian. He said that Norilsk Nickel pumps chemical solutions from Nadezhda to a nearby tailings dam via pipes, and that the factory also pumps metal concentrates from ore mills to Nadezhda.

"Periodically there are accidents when these pipes break and the solutions spill and get into the Daldykan—that's why it changes color," Koshevoi said.

The water does not pose an immediate risk to residents as Norilsk's water supply comes from other sources, the mayor's office said.

Startled residents have posted photos of the crimson river on social media.

"A leak into the river from the Nadezhda factory," Norilsk resident Yekaterina Basalyga wrote on Instagram, according to a Guardian translation. "You get scared when you see this. And people are still gathering mushrooms and berries."

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