Parts of a Russian rocket are expected to crash in Canadian Arctic waters this weekend. The rocket will be launching a satellite under Russia’s Rokot program, and its debris may still contain hydrazine, a toxic fuel, when it makes its descent back down from space. It is unclear who will clean up the debris or what the environmental impact will be in a place that’s home to polar bears and whales, but critics are fuming.
The rocket is a ballistic missile from the Cold War era. According to the Canadian Press service, only two countries in the world still use hydrazine, and Russia is one of them.
Although Canada was warned about the launch, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Austin Jean said they should have been warned further in advance to address airspace safety and environmental concerns. Russian Embassy press secretary Kirill Kalinin said environmental concerns were “seriously taken into account.”
University of British Columbia International Law professor Michael Byers said hydrazine has devastated the launch site most used by countries in Kazakhstan. He said we don’t know much about how hydrazine interacts with cold water, and that there should be an international ban on the fuel.
It’s likely the debris will plummet into the North Water Polynya, an area rich with seals, narwhals, walruses, and beluga whales. Inuit people from Greenland and Canada hunt in the area. Greenpeace Arctic Campaigner Alex Speers-Roesch said, “The idea of dropping a missile full of toxic chemicals in the Arctic waters off Baffin Island is just as preposterous as drilling for oil there. Dumping these chemicals from a ship would be a clear violation of international and Canadian law, and it is no more acceptable when it is dumped from the air.”
It’s not yet known how much hydrazine will be in the debris when it hits. Jean said the fuel could burn out completely as it re-enters the atmosphere. Byers said rockets often contain remaining propellant after onboard computers shut them down. Back in 2005, an American rocket released over two metric tons of fuel that was hydrazine-based near Newfoundland.