A few weeks ago, Russia’s northern port of Murmansk, which spends much of the year swathed in a choking coal haze from its commercial port, was given relief by a concerned phone call from a grade-schooler.
During a trip to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad last week, President Vladimir Putin singled out the city as the crown jewel of his new campaign against a controversial and environmentally disastrous coal mining and loading practices.
“I want to touch on a very sensitive theme,” Putin said. “In the port of Murmansk and other sea ports were they engage in open pit coal mining, ecological problems are becoming sharper, by which I mean the high concentrations of coal dust in the air.”
While he conceded it would be “decades” before Russia abandoned open pit mining for good, he promised to “introduce new progressive technologies for loading on the strictest ecological norms and standards.”
It was music to the ears of Murmansk residents who have for years spent the long winters trudging through anthracite snow and wiping the coal soot spewed by the Murmansk Commercial Port from their windows.
The city and other ports like it have long cried out for federal assistance to roll back higher than permissible levels of coal dust and other mineral by-products polluting their air and water. Local industries responsible for the pollution often find it’s cheaper to pay fines for running afoul of environmental legislation than it is to beef up compliance.
Now, Murmansk has lucked out – thanks to a televised phone call Putin took in July from a little boy in the Pacific Coast town of Nakhodka, a continent away.
The television program, called “Direct Line,” is a carefully staged annual television event designed to show that Putin understands his people – and can solve their problems better than anyone else.
It’s a little like winning the lottery. This year, more than 2 million people submitted requests for Putin to prod ineffectual local bureaucrats to release disaster funds, build roads and housing, boost pensions and tackle poor air quality.
And because Putin can cut through red tape like no one else, the calls get results. In the weeks following “Direct Line,” Putin again appeared on television boxing the ears of hapless local officials, demanding new legislation and showering his selected hand-picked callers with flowers, kisses and promises delivered.
Speaking in Kaliningrad, Putin was responding not only to the Nakhodka schoolboy, but dozens of letters from port-town dwellers just like him complaining about the sheen of coal dust covering their towns when ships are loaded with coal. Port residents have grown even more concerned after recent announcements that coal loading would soon be ratcheted up.
But now the Russian Prosecutor General and the Pacific Coast division of Russia’s natural resources ministry are swooping in and conducting checks at the Port of Nakhodka to ferret out violations.
Russian parliament is hopping to. The Putin-friendly Liberal Democratic Party tabled legislation to tighten up open pit mining procedures – although it fails to stop it all together.
But the legislation does demand that ports where bulk ores are loaded construct enclosures to prevent the spread of coal and ore dusts into the air.
The legislation comes not a day to soon. The Primorsk Port, for example, loaded 33.8 million tons of coal in 2013, well more than half of it in the open air using clam-shell type gripping cranes. The proposed legislation would change that outmoded practice just in time for a new port terminal meant to handle 100 million tons of coal annually.
“We presume that this new federal bill will provide for improving the environmental situation not only at the Port of Primorsk but in other port cities of the Russian Federation,” said the lawmakers in a release accompanying the proposed legislation.
But poor air quality remains a serious issue in Murmansk, where the commercial port is located right in the center of the city and its 300,000 residents.
The port moves nearly 15 million tons of coal a year, most of which is loaded without the benefit of any enclosed structure to minimize the spread of carcinogenic coal dust.
The port itself told Bellona that it has been working for the past five years to prevent the spread of coal dust into the environment and has reviewed its loading technology and its working to update it.
Some of these efforts have been successful. The port said that since 2015 it has installed seven fog guns that can smother the spread of coal dust, and that it plans to install four more by the end of 2017. According to port statistics, the amount of coal dust in the atmosphere has fallen by 49 percent over the past two years.
But the port still needs to work toward enclosing coal loading docks and prevent erosion from loads that materializes as dust over the city. A system of wind screens to reduce the amount of coal dust pouring onto the city by 200 times is expected by 2018.
Though all of these efforts were not initiated as a result of telephone calls to Putin on his Direct Line show, his choreographed response could have real results.
After all, Putin has now sided with the residents of port towns like Murmansk that are yearly coated in a dark cloak of soot. If it doesn’t stop, another little boy might call Putin next year to complain anew.