On Tuesday, Russians living near the Daldykan river in Norilsk made a horrific discovery: The river had turned a frightening, decidedly unclear shade of red.

It wasn’t long before social media theories flooded in: Perhaps it was natural iron ore beneath the water, or it was the type of toxic waste fit for a graphic novel, maybe even a message from God.

Authorities from Russia’s natural resources and environment ministry had a tamer — but worrisome — investigation on their hands, announcing that it would investigate a possible “break in the Norilsk Nickel slurry pipe.” The Daldykan river is located near the Nadezhda metallurgical factor, which is run by the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium, Norilsk Nickel. Denis Koshevoi, of the Vernadsky Institute for Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, told The Guardian that the factory uses pipes to pump chemical waste and metal concentrates to a tailings dam. He suspects that a pipe break has caused the river to turn red.

According to the Russian news site Tayga Info, Norilsk Nickel “does not confirm the fact of leakage or accidental discharge of industrial waste into the river Daldkyan” and claims that the river water is still its normal color. That the water has not changed color appears to be definitively false:

According to ABC news area residents say this is not the first time red’s turned up in a place it’s not supposed to, placing their suspicions on the area’s metal plants of contaminating the area. Resident Evgeny Belikov noted, “In winter, the snow’s also red. On the one hand, it’s beautiful, but on the other, it’s chemical.”

Norilsk is one of the most polluted cities in the world and experiences sub-zero temperatures. Located above the polar circle, it is known for its mining and metallurgy of nickel, copper, and cobalt. According to National Geographic this industry comes with a slew of issues:

“The city is so polluted that residents suffer high rates of cancer, lung disease, blood and skin disorders, and depression. The amount of sulfur dioxide in the air is so high that vegetation in an almost 20-mile radius has died, and residents are forbidden from gathering berries or mushrooms due to high toxicity.”

If nickel is indeed is indeed in the water, then Norilsk citizens are at risk for some serious health problems: Exposure to nickel can cause severe rashes and asthma attacks, while drinking water with a high amount of nickel has been known to cause adverse effects to blood and kidneys.

Photos via basalyga_katerina_nl/Instagram

Sarah is a writer based in Brooklyn. She has previously written for The New Republic, Pacific Standard, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. She likes cheese especially when paired with a full-bodied joke.