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Russia's Environmental Crisis | The Nation

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Russia's Environmental Crisis

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Activists want to restore the environmental committee even though they have criticized it as weak and too cozy with industry. "The committee was badly run," says Nikitin, "but it was doing an important job." Vera Mishenko, who founded Russia's first public-interest environmental law firm, Ecojuris, is suing to have Putin's decree declared illegal. She says documents generated by the environmental committee were helpful when Ecojuris stopped Exxon-Mobil and other transnational corporations from dumping toxic waste into the sea near Sakhalin Island. "Russian law requires that an environmental impact assessment be done before a permit is granted," Mishenko explains, "and when the State Committee told Exxon this, Exxon wrote back to complain, 'You promised us no inspections!'" Smiling, Mishenko adds, "We published this correspondence."

NPR's Living On Earth program broadcast a radio version of this story over the weekend of
September 1-3, 2000. Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of
the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Mark Hertsgaard
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s environment correspondent, is an independent journalist and the author of six books...

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Mishenko believes the Putin government's anti-environmental initiatives reflect a simple goal: sell off Russia's remaining natural resources at maximum speed to attract the foreign investment Putin sees as vital to rejuvenating the moribund economy. (Of course, former President Boris Yeltsin tried this strategy and only ended up enriching the nation's infamous oligarchs.) Besides abolishing the environmental committee, Putin is overseeing a crackdown on green activists. Ecojuris and other groups have been accused of dodging taxes; when inspectors audit the groups, they gain access to membership lists and other confidential information. Putin, who headed the FSB in 1998 and 1999, has asserted that environmental groups provide cover for foreign spies.

Meanwhile, Russia's breathtaking environmental deterioration continues. One million tons of oil--the equivalent of twenty-five Exxon Valdez spills--leak out of pipelines into Russia's soil and water every month. Recent studies blame the disastrous state of the nation's air, soil and water for 30 percent of the precipitate decline in average Russian life spans. The impoverished economy makes matters worse, leaving little money for cleanup or repair. The nuclear submarine disaster illustrates the danger of operating military hardware without sufficient funding, but countless Russian industrial facilities are running the same risk. Says activist Zabelin, "The chances for a different accident are of course increasing, because we have the same equipment as twenty years ago. This is a kind of dangerous stability."

Nowhere are conditions more dire than near nuclear complexes. The most famous is Chernobyl, where the 1986 accident released 100 times as much radiation as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined. Today, 3 million youngsters still need treatment for Chernobyl-related ailments. At the Mayak complex in Chelyabinsk, where the Soviet Union built nuclear weapons during the cold war, Lake Karachay ranks as perhaps the most polluted spot on earth; it contains 120 million curies of radioactive waste, including seven times the amount of strontium-90 and cesium-137 that was released at Chernobyl. By 2020-30, half the children born in Chelyabinsk are expected to suffer "severe genetic deficiencies," British parliamentary aide David Lowry recently wrote in the Guardian.

Yet Mayak will receive tons of additional nuclear waste if Putin's minister of atomic energy, Yevgeny Adamov, gets his way. Adamov wants to change Russian law to allow the import of nuclear waste. Such imports, claims Adamov, could pay for scores of new nuclear power plants for Russia and help clean up sites like Lake Karachay. Nikitin opposes the plan, saying, "This is the source where Adamov will get funds to develop the nuclear industry, but it's like a snowball, always getting bigger. The more reactors he builds, the more waste there will be, and the more problems he will encounter."

Nikitin points out that Washington wields considerable influence on this matter. Under the old Atoms for Peace program, the United States regulates the nuclear waste that Russia wants to import from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. "I think our job is to influence not only the Russian side but also the American side," Nikitin told me, "because without the consent of the Americans and the Europeans it's impossible to import nuclear fuel or radioactive waste."

The proposed environmental referendum would reassert Russia's existing ban on nuclear waste imports as well as reverse Putin's decree, but will it pass? Activists Mishenko and Zabelin fear not; they worry that the government will seize upon the involvement of Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund in drafting the referendum to discredit it as a foreign plot. But Frederic Hauge of Bellona believes such pessimism underestimates the environmental fervor of the Russian people. "I have seen the local fights around Russia," he says. "When they tried to move nuclear waste from the Kola Peninsula down to Chelyabinsk, there were 10,000 people in the streets.... I think we will see the referendum during the next year."

For his part, Alexandr Nikitin must first survive his Supreme Court appearance on September 13. The stakes are high. If the court does grant the government's request for a retrial, it would distract Nikitin from the referendum fight and probably discourage ordinary Russians from enlisting in the environmental cause. A ruling in favor of Nikitin, on the other hand, would reinforce the message of earlier verdicts: In today's Russia, maybe you can fight the system and win.

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