They’ll pave paradise and put up…a high-speed road

Publish date: January 23, 2008

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG - The grandest urban development project yet in this city threatens the environment and human health, environmentalists here insist, adding they will go to court to defend the city despite mounting pressure from authorities and even the murder of one of the protesters.

The Western High-Speed Diameter (WHSD) – a new major highway planned to cut across St. Petersburg by 2011 and hoped to alleviate the heavy traffic in the inner city – will affect the health of local residents and destroy the unique nature reserve of Yuntolovo, warns a public environmental impact study undertaken with the support of Bellona and the local environmental movement Save Yuntolovo.

The WHSD will be an eight-lane toll road serving as part of the IX Pan-European Transport Corridor connecting Moscow and Finland’s Helsinki. City authorities project it to cross St. Petersburg from south to north.

The RUR 83 billion ($3.35 billion) speedway is pushed as a “strategic project” for the city and it is touted as the first example of a public-private partnership in Russia. Half of the construction costs will in fact be shouldered by the state, while the remaining funds will come from an investor yet to be chosen in the course of an ongoing concession tender. The tender’s winner will be granted the right to build and operate the road for a period of 30 years.

The project has already attracted the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the European Investment Bank, and the International Finance Corporation, all of which said they were interested in financing the construction.

Yet, despite all the pomp and grandeur with which the project has been presented to the city and potential investors, the prospects brought with it do not impress the wary locals. The WHSD is a source of worry for 40,000 St. Petersburgers who voiced their protest against the project, saying the construction will violate their right to a favourable living environment.

WHSD opponents say it will harm the health of the city’s residents and have a negative impact on the urban environment and the fragile ecosystems of the neighbouring Gulf of Finland: The northern section of the highway is set to stretch right along the border of the Yuntolovo wildlife reserve, a unique wetland northwest of St. Petersburg.

The minority report
The environmental movement Save Yuntolovo and the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona in St. Petersburg have conducted a public-funded environmental impact study commissioned to a local environmental expert research centre, ECOM.

The experts’ opinion was that the project will exacerbate the environmental condition of the shoreline of the Gulf of Finland and will prove most perilous for the future of the Yuntolovo reserve, as the highway is slated to cut right across a forest at the reserve’s border, which serves as its buffer zone.

The researchers concluded that the construction will also destroy the territory’s delicate hydrological balance, which will cause the wetlands to dry out. That, in turn, will impact the local fauna as well as the flora, including plants protected by the endangered species lists: Migratory birds use the reserve as a stop-over area on their passage to Scandinavia. Ultimately, the construction may result in cross-border environmental devastation, the report’s authors say.

ECOM’s recommendation was that the reserve’s buffer zone be included in its protected territory in order to save the unique natural habitat from destruction.

“This natural site is our natural historical and cultural legacy, which, from my point of view, is just as valuable as the Hermitage [Museum], the Alexander Column on Palace Square, or St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Destroying it would be no less a crime than wiping out, say, the Winter Palace,” one of the authors, well-known ornithologist Dr. Georgy Noskov, said during the presentation of the study, drawing comparisons between Yuntolovo and the beautiful architectural landmarks for which St. Petersburg is world-renowned.

However, the experts’ concerns are apparently not shared by the WHSD developers: The project documentation does not take into account the potential impact the highway may have on Yuntolovo and makes no mention of whether the construction will ruin the wetland’s hydrological balance or threaten the local birds and plants.

No prognostications are made as to whether the noise from the high-speed traffic might have a harmful effect on bird nesting or whether further damage to the environment may come in case a serious accident happens on the road.

But whether or not they receive due attention among authorities, the gloomy prospects of the WHSD project do worry the local population, including residents who may end up living only 75 to 100 metres from the busy speedway. The project does not provide for the option of offering the relocation alternative to the locals and only suggests installing reinforced window panes in their houses and special screens along the road to keep out the traffic noise.

The ECOM researchers deemed these measures insufficient and, in view of the many unclosed gaps in the WHSD documentation, recommended that the project developers work further to meet the requirements of the current legislation, bringing the project up again for an environmental impact assessment when all the environmental loose ends are tied up.

WHSD developers still have that opportunity to meet the public half-way. Despite the blow that the Russian environmental legislation was dealt in January 2007, when the State Duma abolished the state environmental impact assessment procedure, which was previously obligatory for all industrial projects, the regulation was left unchanged in a number of federal laws.

According to the law “On wild animals,” Article 20, Part 1, an environmental impact study is still a prerequisite for all projects envisioning industrial construction that may harm the site’s fauna and its habitat.

Opponents forced to hit the road – all the way to court
Yet, such opportunities seem to be brushed off by the joint stock company WHSD – the eponymous firm established to handle part of the task of financing the project’s development – in the same way it is shutting down any attempts by the public to break through the impenetrable barriers surrounding any information about the project.

“Even though the [speedway] is bound to affect thousands of people, project developers are completely ignoring our requests for information. The company didn’t deign one answer to our questions and was stalling for several months with giving us the documentation for our environmental risk assessment,” said one Save Yuntolovo activist, Tatiana Skrodenis.

It is not just private citizens that WHSD is set to shun.

“We are not talking to reporters about any questions,” Bellona Web was told by WHSD’s deputy general director Semyon Suponitsky’s secretary.

When surrounded by specialists from the EBRD and the International Finance Corporation, however, Suponitsky has been noticed to advertise his company’s complete openness to dialogue and to lament that ecologists are not bringing their grievances directly to the company.

Yet, the better part of the environmental impact study report consists of a list of documents that the experts requested but never saw.

“It’s actually no mystery why those documents never came: They would have allowed us to make conclusions about the real impact that could be expected from the construction on the environment,” ECOM’s director Alexander Karpov was quoted as saying to the news agency Rosbalt.

According to Save Yuntolovo’s Skrodenis, environmentalists also tried to procure the necessary documentation through a request to the EBRD, but that attempt likewise yielded no results.

Save Yuntolovo activists say that with Bellona’s support, they are ready to move to challenge the project in court. The conclusions of the environmental impact study will be one of the main arguments in their case against the WHSD project.

“The results of the public environmental assessment study are insurmountable proof that the construction of the road will deal irrevocable damage to the nature reserve,” Bellona’s legal counsel in St. Petersburg, Olga Krivonos, said.

The report on the project’s sizable ecological risks will also be presented to WHSD’s potential investors. “We will apply our best efforts to convincing the banks of the inadvisability of the project,” said Skrodenis.

The murder
Late last year, the WHSD speedway’s opponents found the project was not only harmful to the environment, but was giving them reason to fear for their lives.

On December 18th, one of the activists, Dmitry Troyan, who chaired the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Car-Owners Association, died following a brutal attack. Troyan’s murder is linked by his colleagues to his ardent attempts in the two years leading to his death to defend the rights of car-owners whose parking garages happened to be in the area claimed by the project developers for the WHSD construction.

“We doubt that this killing is a complete coincidence. Intimidating activists and hindering their work has lately become routine practice [in Russia],” said Skrodenis. According to her, ecologists were hard-pressed to even find an audience hall they could hire to host the presentation of the environmental risks study report: Local authorities had made sure lessors knew what was coming if they offered their premises up for rent.

To counteract the pressure, Save Yuntolovo initiated a broad campaign, collecting signatures to support a petition to the EBRD with a request that the bank refrain from considering financing the project until the investigation into Troyan’s murder was completed.

“We are calling on the bank to demand that Russian authorities investigate Dmitry Troyan’s murder with especial diligence, by sending an official request on the matter to prosecutors and the St. Petersburg governor’s office. If no investigation takes place, or it is done in a clearly perfunctory manner, the attack on Troyan will have to be deemed as a gross act of repression against civic engagement and intimidation against WHSD opponents,” the petition to EBRD reads.

“It is the EBRD’s hope that [Russian] authorities will move quickly to shed light on this extremely alarming incident,” the head of the bank’s St. Petersburg branch, Bruno Balvanera, told Bellona Web. However, he has refrained from further comments on the murder for the time being.

City government officials chose to avoid making any direct observations: “It will be the prosecutor’s office task to decide whether the murder of Dmitry Troyan is connected to his activities. We cannot comment on this matter,” said the administration’s Committee for Investment and Strategic Planning’s press secretary, Vera Heifets.