Russia’s Arctic regions chase government funding to raise Soviet era shipwrecks

arctic junk Russia's Arctic regions are struggling with decades of abandoned junk.

Despite the international funding that has poured into the Murmansk area to remove nuclear hazards, other kinds of accumulated environmental damage are crying out for state funding, according to a recent meeting convened in the regional Parliament’s Ecology Committee.

Yevgeny Nikora, Murmansk’s deputy governor, the committee has been keeping a list of environmentally degraded areas, which include waste dumps, ships that were flooded and left in Arctic waters, sites abandoned by the military and, of course, nuclear and radiation hazards. The 151 environmentally degraded and hazardous sites toted up by the committee cover the same area as 40,000 soccer fields.

All of this is putting particular stress on Kola Bay, the breadbasket of Arctic Russia’s fishing community. Marine and naval ports, huge ship repair yards, growing municipalities and the remnants of Russia’s nuclear navy continue to squeeze the environment.

“The shores and waters of the Gulf are littered with ships and other objects thrown in the 1980s and 1990s, which adversely affect the state of the marine environment,” Nikora told the meeting. “Currently, pilot projects are being implemented to clean the Kola Bay from unauthorized ship dumps. The federal budget allocated 50 million rubles ($880,000) for this.“

ship_Kolabay_dump A half sunken ship on the Kola Peninsula. (PhotoL RosRAO)

Specifically, he said that a comprehensive survey of the Kola Bay turned up 102 sunken objects like ships and ship parts. But work to raise them is only just beginning. in 2017 two sunken ships were raised in Retinsk Bay.

“Now it is necessary to continue working directly on raising these vessels,” Nikora said. “A working group has been established in the region, which deals with the issues of which objects should be raised first.”

To continue this work will require more financing, but it gets more complicated than just that.  Because Kola Bay is a federal body of water, funds for cleaning its watershed also come from the federal budget. To date, however, Moscow has yet to determine where those fund will come from. But presumably they could be accounted for by already established government programs targeting environmental damage from past economic activity.

retinskoe1 ship Shipwrecks being raised from Kola Bay in 2017. Credit:

The second problem has to do with who actually owns these shipwrecks. Federal funds can only go toward raising those vessels whose ownership can’t be determined. Yet a government bureaucracy has yet to be established which could petition courts to establish that this or that vessel is in fact abandoned and ownerless – and thus raisable on federal roubles. Roprirodnazor, Russia’s natural resources ministry, could function as this bureaucracy.

The third impediment to cleaning up these wrecks is how long it takes to get state environmental reviews, which are required before the vessels can be raised. It took five months to get a state review for the vessels pulled out of Retinsk Bay.

“It is necessary to reduce the amount of time it takes to get state reviews on priority environmental projects in the Arctic,” Nikora told the gathering.

But because of this, said Nikora, it is still difficult to make accurate predictions about how long it will take to clean the Kola Bay watershed.

“I think that within three to five years we will have to work closely on clearing the gulf of the remaining 100 wrecks,” said Nikora. “The experience of the Murmansk region can be a model, an example for other subjects of the Russian Federation, “he said.

Indeed, the problem of environmental decay can be found in the Nenets Autonomous Republic to the Murmansk Region’s east on the Kara Sea. One such place is the village of Anderma.

Anderma-1 Abandoned buildings along the Kola Sea coast in the Nenets Autonomous Region.

Since 1953, the village has been a seaport. During Soviet times, In the Soviet years it was the bustling home of an air force squadron. In the 1990s, that all screeched to a halt and the town was all but abandoned. Now its grim landscape is populated by orphaned buildings and warehouses, dumps of scrap metal, domestic and construction garbage, abandoned transport and in come cases aircraft, and dumps of tanks with combustible a materials.

Olga Kameneva, who chairs the republic’s indigenous people’s commission, said that in 2011, the government conducted a research project to determine how pollution was impacting the Nenets Regions’ soil, vegetation and water.

The results were grim. The Ministry of Natural Resource’s Polar Fund determined that some 100,000 hectares of the republic was polluted, on which lie some 110,000 tons of scape metal.

In 2012 and 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources together with the Ministry of Defense mounted a drive to recycle scrap metal. But, like so many others, that effort was shelved over lack of funds, exacerbated by the region’s harsh weather and lack of roads and other infrastructure.

At a federal level, a program called Clean Country is helping make inroads into these areas of industrial waste. By submitting applications, various regions of the country can receive subsidies for cleanup. So far 13 different facilities and areas in Murmansk have qualified for some funding.

The Nenets Region, likewise, has worked up a development program to ride itself of sunken Soviet era waste, which federal subsides are helping co-finance.