Vladimir Potanin makes an unlikely environmentalist. The Russian tycoon, worth $17 billion at last count, derives half his wealth from a mine operator that’s the biggest polluter in the nation’s dirtiest city.
The smelting of nickel and other metals from the mines pumped about 2 million metric tons of waste into Norilsk’s air as recently as 2013, eight times the level of Russia’s next most-polluted metropolis.
Yet if Potanin makes good on plans to spend billions of dollars on the largest modernization of MMC Norilsk Nickel PJSC since the Soviet era, he’ll have cut annual sulphur-dioxide emissions equal to the entire output of the toxic gas from Europe’s five biggest economies.
“When all are pointing fingers at you for doing something wrong, it’s unpleasant,” the billionaire said, sitting in one of the restaurants of the Luzhki Club resort he owns near Moscow. “On top of that, it’s important for me what I think of myself.”
The task for Potanin, who’s been a shareholder for almost two decades but was appointed as chief executive officer only at the end of 2012, has meant picking through a patchwork of filthy mining and smelting industries. Some operations at Nornickel, as the company is known, dated back as far as the Second World War and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s archipelago of gulag work camps.
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