Russian environmentalists dissatisfied with Duma’s progress on environmetal bills

Vera Ponomareva/Bellona

Publish date: March 9, 2007

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - Ecological bills that that have been hastily voted into law by Russia’ State Duma recently have been met with a hostile reaction from environmentalists, while more important and urgent bills languish collecting dust for years awaiting consideration.

Last year was especially marred by the passing of several legislative acts that drew the sharp protest of environmentalists – for instance the Water and Forest Codes which allow the purchase of bodies water and forests as private property.

And in December, the Duma approved amendments to construction codes that in one swipe wiped out the requirement for environmental expert evaluations as a requirement for building.

“As a result of the State Duma’s actives work this year, Russia is practically completely devoid of any foundation for ecological legislation,” said Olga Krivonos, a lawyer with Bellona’s St. Petersburg office.

At the same time, a number of bills that could actually had a positive impact on the development of environmental legislation have remain under wraps for many years.

According to Alexei Yablokov, the leader of the Green Russia faction, these bills aren’t gaining any support because of the Duma’s “general tendency of weakening ecological legislation.”

“In the past six years, the Duma spoils, not improves, environmental legislation, it weakens it,” said Yablokov in an interview with Bellona Web.

In December 1996, the Duma was slated to review bills entitled “On the status of zones of ecological catastrophe,” “On civil responsibility for nuclear harm and financial coverage of damages caused,” “On compensation for negative impact on the environment,” “On amendments to the law protecting Lake Baikal” which would have prevented dumping industrial waste water from the Baikal Cellulose Paper Combine into the world’ deepest lake, and the law “On the prevention of cruelty to animals.”

The bill ‘On the status of zones of ecological catastrophe’

Environmentalists have said this law is necessary. A significant area of Russia is in an unfavourable or even catastrophic state.

“To rehabilitate these territories one needs to take an integrated approach at the federal level,” said Krivonos.

Deputies from the Duma’s Committee on Ecology introduced this bill back in 2001. But since then, its review has been constantly put off, and now is slated for review in June 2007. The bill establishes procedures for declaring area ecological disaster areas and proposes a special regimen for the subsistence of these territories. The bill envision a special tax scheme for these areas – discounts for investors in environmental rehabilitation of such areas, and redistribution of taxes such that they benefit such areas instead of going directly to the federal budget.

Article 20 of the bill envisions a complex of measures aimed at reducing health risks to the local populations of such areas. This would include preventative and corrective health care, special medical observation, social assistance to local populations, and possible relocation of populations affected by such lands.

“This roster of bills looks declarative. When speaking of the health of people (in such areas) the notion of social security must be introduced. The types and forms of social security for citizens living in ecologically problematic areas has to be clearly situated in a bill that would allow realistic care for the health of people,” said Krivonos.

In 1996, an attempt to declare the city of Karabash in the Southern Urals, where the Karabash Honey Smelting Combine is located, an ecological disaster area. An environmental evaluation by the Ministry of Natural Resources determined the town should be declared a zone of ecological catastrophe. However no further steps were taken in the wake of this decision. The city was never declared and zone of ecological catastrophe, no federal programs were undertaken to improve the environmental situation of the town or its residents.

In January 2006, a program to resettle the residents of the village of Muslyumovo, located on the banks of the radioactively contaminated River Techa, downstream from the infamous Mayak Chemical Combine in the Chelyabinsk region of the southern Urals. For 50 years, local authorities refused to declare that the area was dangerous to inhabit. It was Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) that stepped forward with an initiative to resettle the towns residents, restore the banks of the irradiated river, to earmark money for new homes, and to restore the land surrounding the river.

According to Rosatom media relations advisor, Yury Konyshev, this step was “the good will of Rosatom.” However, good will is not enough of a guarantee when speaking of the lives and health of 700 families.

The bill ‘On civil responsibility for nuclear harm and financial coverage of damages caused’
The bill “On civil responsibility for nuclear harm and financial coverage of damages caused” was introduced in the Duma in 1996. It establishes a system of compensation in the event of an accident at a nuclear installation. In order to ensure that victims are compensated, companies dealing with the nuclear field must guarantee their solvency to cover these compensatory costs – for instance, by establishing special funds insuring their civil responsibility. The maximum payout for any nuclear accident is fixed in the bill at $150m. Nuclear companies would therefore be required t0 have these funds to receive an operating license.

“The idea of the law is good, but $150m – this is not a sufficient amount in the event of a serious accident,” said Vladimir Slivyak, chairman of the environmental group Ecodefence!

According to Yablokov, such limited liability is convenient for the nuclear industry.

“This is an anti-environmental law,” said Yablokov. “Judging by the Chernobyl accident, we know that the amount of damage can be comparable to the state budget. If we limit the liability of the nuclear industry, the state will pay for them.”

Indeed, as stipulated in the bill, any reimbursement for a nuclear accident exceeding the maximum that any nuclear operator can pay is taken from the State Insurance Fund for Compensation for Nuclear Dangers. The bill does not indicate how this fund will be formed. Environmentalists don’t rule out that it could come from taxpayer’s pockets.

The $150m indemnification sum was established as the minimum amount in the Geneva Convention’s provisions for civil responsibility for nuclear damage, which Russia ratified in March 2005.

More than 30 countries have ratified the convention by now. Not all of the countries elected to hold themselves to the minimum demands of the convention. For example, Germany sets the liability for each nuclear power station at EUR 2.5 billion. Part of this sum – up to EUR 265m – is covered by insurance.

In Switzerland, which signed but did not ratify the convention, the liability sum is set at EUR 700m.