ST. PETERSBURG – Amendments to Russian environmental law would lead to watering down its effectiveness, say those who gathered last week in St. Petersburg for the All-Russia Conference “Ecological problems of Russia's regions and ways to solve them"
The participants also discussed the environmental problems present in the overwhelming majority of Russia’s federal regions, each of which were introduced to the session by members of various environmental groups working across Russia.
Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin said at the opening of the Conference on Wednesday that he “very much hoped that at this conference, we will not only discuss existing problems, but find ways to their solutions.”
He noted that the gathering of such a wide cross-section of environmental NGOs was “necessary for raising the professionalism of those who are advocating for and defending their ecological rights.”
Viktor Lozhechko, head of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly’s Environment and Natural Resource Usage Committee, noted in his opening remarks that, “You all know how regional authorities react to environmental problems in their own regions, and without attracting the attention of the public, the issues will not be solved.”
Further, Natalya Yevdokimova, head of legislation research and analysis at the St. Petersburg-based Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, and Yekaterina Khmelyova, environment law officer at the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) Russia, illustrated that Russia’s legislative policies are crippling environmental protection law, offering individuals and communities little recourse to addressing their environmental maladies.
According to Lozhechko, Russia’s regional environmental woes are more or less common to each region, and are getting worse by the year.
Air, water and soil problems general across the country
Reports were presented by environmentalists from three of the eight federal districts of Russia – the Siberian, Far Eastern, and Central Federal Districts – confirmed Lozhechko’s assertion.
The common themes that emerged were growing air, water, and soil pollution, and the authorities’ unwillingness to address the problems
In Siberia, said Alexei Toropov of the Siberian Ecological Agency, air pollution levels are growing in many of the district’s towns and cities.
The main reasons are the weakness of state and municipal environmental protection authorities and lack of independent oversight on their part, no proper understanding of the significance of the problem by the authorities in general, as well as the population’s apathy where it concerns both the importance of clean air and the citizens’ right to demand action from the government, said Toporov.
The Far East
In the Far East, said Yulia Gredyukha from Sakhalin Environmental Watch, said the main problems characterizing the Far East’s situation are air, soil, and water pollution arising from fossil fuel production and transportation, the mining industry, as well as production wastes and domestic waste generated from consumer products.
“The citizens’ right to a favorable living environment has been violated for years on Sakhalin,” Gredyukha said during her presentation.
One example Gredyukha spoke of is a liquefied natural gas plant located just one kilometer away from settlements of dachas city residents own in the area. Pollution from the plumes has forced many to abandon their houses and the little plots of land they cultivate: “They are afraid of eating the harvests they gather, and it’s become plain impossible to live there anyway,” according to Gredyukha.
The Central Federal District
Even more worrisome problems have emerged in the Central Federal District, said Alexander Fyodorov, chairman of the Association of Environmental Journalists of Russia – an organization recently created within the Russian Union of Journalists.
According to his report to the conference, pollution levels there have risen 3 percent over the last three years.
The Central Federal District – which includes Moscow – is distinct from the other seven in both its size and the level of social engagement observed among its population.
This district consists of 18 federal constituent units where more than a quarter of the country’s total population – over 38,000,000 – reside. Large industrial enterprises are a common sight in more than 300 cities on the territory of this district, and their activities are responsible for the ecological situation and pollution levels in the region, accounting for 8.5 percent of gross emissions from stationary sources (or over 1.6 million tons).
“Lipetsk Region ranks the highest, with its 367,600 tons [of greenhouse gas emissions]. Emissions remain high in Moscow, Tula, and Ryazan Regions, at 204,600, 167,100, and 133,900 tons, respectively,” Fyodorov said at the conference.
The Central Federal District is also the largest among Russia’s other federal districts in the volume of discharged wastewater pollution. Moscow is responsible for 50 percent of this pollution.
“As a result of neglect with respect to issues of providing protection for public health and the environment during Governor Boris Gromov’s tenure, Moscow Region in 2010 became one of Russia’s six regions where the ecological situation has remained of the most concern and where environmental pollution levels could lead to deteriorating health and living conditions for the residents,” Fyodorov said in his report.
Addressing these issues, complained the WWF’s Khmelyova, was a matter of rolling the dice.
“It is obvious that no development of the environmental legislation is possible in our country without taking into account in what sort of political situation and with what kind of leadership these changes are taking place,” Khmelyova said.
The conference’s discussion of the main trends of development of the environmental legislation in Russia began with a retrospective of two benchmark periods in Russia’s recent history – the year 2000, when the State Commission for Ecology was disbanded, and 2002, when a new law “On protection of the environment” was passed to replace the old one.
According to Khmelyova, when the words “natural environment” were dropped from the new version of the law, that essentially set the tone for the ecological policies the state has adhered to ever since.
A number of environmental bills were developed under President Dmitry Medvedev, Khmelyova said, such as the law “On protection of seas against oil spills” and the law establishing the status of specially protected areas in Russia – a category that includes national parks, botanical gardens, and health resorts, among others. However, these bills were developed without public participation.
Ecological organizations sent their critical comments on the bills to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and the Russian parliament, the State Duma, but their input was almost universally ignored. As a result, the new laws fail to meet the needs of the public or business, or even many governmental agencies and institutions.
ERC Bellona’s Yevdokimova, spoke of the many negative changes Russia’s environmental law has suffered in the recent past, amendments that make it easier to enforce decisions that result in adverse effects for the environment.
Speaking of those standards and regulations in Russian environmental law that provide for a fertile ground for corruption risks – a notion that the modern public and political vernacular in Russia has termed “corruptogenic” – Yevdokimova said that the newly emerging loopholes allowing for corruption risks do not automatically mean that “everyone is making a rush to take bribes.”
Changes made in Environmental law ‘for the worse’
In 2008, Russia adopted a package of anti-corruption legislation. For instance, the 2008 package of anti-corruption legislation adopted by Russia does not limit the definition of corruption to giving and taking bribes, but expands it to cover a broad list of acts that includes “other unlawful use of official position by individual persons.”
“Having analyzed changes that have been made in a number of federal laws in the past ten years, I can say that only 10 percent of these changes have brought improvements, but the predominant majority have been for the worse,” Yevdokimova said.
In particular, that the authority to make decisions has been relegated from the federal government to the level of this or that body or organization created by the government has resulted in both a lower level of decision-making and less responsibility for the decisions made.
In other amendments, the law no longer stipulates culpability for providing untruthful information.
Among other deteriorating changes in the recent legislation, Yevdokimova noted the removal of a large number of projects – both of regional and federal scope – from the list of projects that must pass state environmental evaluation. The economic activities envisioned in projects have been made exempt from the environmental evaluation procedure; only documentation substantiating such activities remains subject to state review.
A stamp of approval issued following a state environmental impact evaluation is no longer listed among the conditions that determine the locations of waste disposal sites. Furthermore, maximum allowable levels of emissions are only now set for each specific stationary source of harmful emissions – as opposed to the earlier regulations, which specified such limits on the basis of the best purification technologies available.
“There have appeared vague references to the ‘legislation of the Russian Federation,’ which, given the enormous amount of laws, can be used either to the advantage or against particular individuals,” Yevdokimova also said during the discussion.
Less environmental oversight leads to greater risks for the environment
Amendments recently introduced into Russia’s environmental legislation remove a whole layer of environmental control, which threatens a dire impact on the state of environment in Russia.
For instance, the Federal Law “On state environmental evaluations” no longer provides for the realization by Russia’s constituent entities – or 83 federal subjects – of their constitutional right to coordinate in joint administration with the Russian Federation issues of environmental protection and assurance of environmental safety. Likewise, the law has abolished the specially mandated state bodies previously authorized to conduct state environmental impact evaluations on both federal and territorial levels, and the procedure of state environmental evaluation itself has been abolished at the level of federal subjects of the Russian Federation.
The same law no longer requires drafts of federal legislative bills whose adoption may negatively impact the natural environment to pass state environmental evaluation; the same has been done for drafts of federal programs whose implementation may result in adverse effects for the environment, drafts of land development layout plans, or projects related to various economic activities.
Furthermore, the Federal Law “On industrial and consumer waste” no longer includes the definition of hazardous waste. This gives officials broad discretion in interpreting the degree of hazard that waste expected from a particular activity may pose. The authority to ensure the implementation of federal policy in the sphere of waste management is no longer part of the waste management mandate of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation – a violation of the scope of authority of bodies of state governance, since protection of the environment is a matter of joint administration of the Russian Federation and its subjects.
NGO’s must step in to avoid corruption risks
During the discussion, ERC Bellona’s Yevdokimova highlighted a number of factors that facilitate corruption in the use of natural resources and environmental protection in Russia. These include, for instance:
• The convoluted structure and vagueness of environmental protection law;
• No regulatory framework in the field of protection of the environment that would take into account the regional factors and condition of the natural territorial complex and that would ensure transparency in environmental oversight activities;
• No transparency or openness in the system of decision preparation and decision-making that would allow for participation by all parties of an environmental impact evaluation; the roles of concerned parties has not been clearly defined;
• Overlapping jurisdictions afforded to federal, regional, and municipal oversight bodies mandated to conduct environmental supervision of industrial enterprises;
• The low level of ecological awareness and education in the field of environmental rights among Russian citizens, and failure to provide the public with a broad range of information on the ecological impact of planned economic activities or activities of enterprises already operating on the territories of the constituent entities of the Russian Federation.
Because in today’s Russia, both state-level and municipal bodies of governance are reluctant to enhance the efficiency of environmental supervision or improve protection of the environment, the task to initiate measures and activities to compel state environmental protection and other authorities to enforce better ecological and anti-corruption policies falls to non-governmental organizations, mass media, and the public at large, Yevdokimova concluded.
Anna Kireeva wrote and reported from St. Petersburg, and Maria Kaminskaya and Charles Digges translated and edited from St. Petersburg and Oslo respectively.