Standing up to harmful industries: conference participants find economic crisis is environmentalists’ strange bedfellow

Central Nikel on the Kola Peninsula.
Thomas Nilsen for Bellona

Publish date: September 30, 2015

Written by: Igor Yakovlev

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

Recent experience trying to stop environmentally harmful activities offers little comfort, Russia’s ecological activists noted as they exchanged battle stories from dealing with the diverse problems in Russia’s regions at Bellona’s 5th annual conference, “The Ecology of Russian Cities/ Public Initiatives.” It seems the only ally the environmental interests of Russian citizens now have in their camp is the country’s worsening economic crisis.

ST. PETERSBURG – Recent experience trying to stop environmentally harmful activities offers little comfort, Russia’s ecological activists noted as they exchanged battle stories from dealing with the diverse problems in Russia’s regions at Bellona’s 5th annual conference, “The Ecology of Russian Cities/ Public Initiatives.” It seems the only ally the environmental interests of Russian citizens now have in their camp is the country’s worsening economic crisis.

Fighting against nickel production in central Russia,…

The discussion unfurled during the presentation of the public report on violations of citizens’ environmental rights in the Russian Federation in 2014 and 2015, an annual compendium of environmental aggravations compiled by Bellona with contributions from experts and activists of environmental NGOs across Russia.

The battle against nickel mining near Novokhopyorsk, on the Khopyor River in Voronezh Region, in Central European Russia, is now well into its fourth year, ever since a presidential decree in late 2011 gave the start to a tender for additional exploration and development of two copper-nickel deposits in the area.

activist beatings Novokhopyorsk Private security guards clash with activists protesting the nickel mining near Novokhopyorsk. (Photo:

According to Tatiana Chestina, of the interregional environmental non-profit ECA Green Movement, protest actions continue in the region. There have been no fewer than fifty meetings and pickets protesting the mining plans.

The cause has also been taken up by activists elsewhere, featuring in several cross-nation solidarity actions.

Local residents have collected 100,000 signatures against the mining and taken them to Moscow. Submitting the signatures to the Presidential Executive Office took seven hours – the officials examined the signatures, recounted them… and then sent the petitioners the usual run-around reply.

One thing this long campaign has done is make the residents more engaged in defending their rights on a broader scale, noted Chestina: “When people are involved with one problem, over time, they create an organization that starts to expand into related problems as well.”

Local activists even decided to go into politics – participating both as candidates and observers in the recently held regional and municipal elections. Meanwhile, the nickel mining opposition community in the Russian social network Odnoklassniki has nearly become a full-fledged media outlet, and, what’s more, in contrast to the “regular” regional media – an independent one.

The group now has over 70,000 followers – a no small achievement, given that the population of Novokhopyorsk, the town to be most immediately affected by the mining, numbers around 40,000.

… for a nature reserve in the south,…

Dmitry Shevchenko, coordinator with the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), of Krasnodar Region, spoke about the ecological problems of Russia’s southern shores.

But he began with a short detour back to Novokhopyorsk. The EWNC activists regularly visit their colleague Yevgeny Vitishko, who is serving a three-year sentence in a prison colony in Tambov Region on trumped-up charges of defacing a construction fence surrounding a villa built by former Krasnodar governor Alexander Tkachev in a public nature reserve on the Black Sea. Novokhopyorsk is one of the locations they cross as they make their way to Tambov.

vitishko hearing Yevgeny Vitishko at another hearing where a petition for his early release was again rejected. (Photo: Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus)

“Everywhere we go – at a gas station, a café – people would be talking about nickel mining,” Shevchenko said.

As for his home region, the Southern Federal District – one of the several large divisions of Russian territory introduced to facilitate certain governing functions, including by federal government agencies – comprises different regions, and each, according to Shevchenko, has its own traditions, its own power clans, its own organized crime.

There is, all the same, something that unites them as well, said Shevchenko: “total legal nihilism among the governing elites, total lawlessness.” These regions have no independent media, TV or radio companies, of noteworthy public reach. This leaves a mark on the population’s willingness to engage in civil activity: “People’s only concern is with something that happens under their own windows.”

With all these factors at play, it has been nearly impossible to defend the Caucasian State Nature Biosphere Reserve, in Western Caucasus, a national treasure that was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999. Two years later, President Vladimir Putin decided to build here, on the western slope of Mountain Fisht, a skiing resort called Lunnaya Polyana. The project was greenlit for implementation under the guise of a research center.

2014_Sotsji_NB-l459 (3) Ski lifts at Gazprom's Laura Ski Resort, one of several - like Lunnaya Polyana - that were carved into nature preserves under false pretenses for the Sochi Olympics. Credit: Nils Bøhmer

Environmentalists then got hold of documents that showed the Administrative Directorate of the President of the Russian Federation demanded that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment make adjustments on the reserve’s boundaries. As usual, publication of those documents triggered no scandal, nor any resignations. When the construction of the so-called “research center” was finally stopped it was only thanks to the international status of the reserve. And ten years later, thanks to UNESCO, environmentalists managed to secure sufficient distance between the reserve’s borders and construction of sites planned in Krasnaya Polyana for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games.

…for clean air in the north,…

Bellona-Murmansk’s Anna Kireeva spoke about industrial emissions of sulfur dioxide on the Kola Peninsula. Sulfur dioxide is a toxic compound posing a third class danger, by Russia’s measurement system. Its maximum safe concentration is one half a milligram per square meter.

But pollutant emissions exceeding maximum allowable concentrations have become a regular practice in the region, according to Kireeva – so much so that the Russian Federal Service for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring, or Rosgidromet, which monitors pollution and publishes monitoring results, has even stopped specifying by how many times exactly the permissible level was exceeded in a given reading if it was exceeded by more than ten times.

On April 5, 2015, a one-time maximum concentration of sulfur dioxide spiked to 12.6 times the limit, triggering an investigation by the environmental oversight agency, the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, or Rosprirodnadzor, and the environmental prosecutor’s office.

Since then, officials have been using a special, vague enough phrasing “high level of pollution” to refer to measurements over ten times in excess of permissible limits. Rosgidromet’s explanation in a comment to Bellona was that its instruments fail to register exact numbers when pollution levels soar that high.

Over the summer, twice more, in June and July, Rosgidromet registered concentrations of over ten times the allowable threshold.

Every time the allowable level is exceeded by more than ten times, Rosprirodnadzor carries out inspections of the region’s smelting enterprises and levies fines – low enough, however, to expect that they might serve as a persuasive enough deterrent against future violations. The April incident resulted for the Kola Mining and Metallurgical Company (KMMC), the enterprise found responsible for the pollution spike, in an administrative penalty of 25,000 rubles (around $380).

nikelpasko The Industrial town of Nikel. (Photo: Grigory Pasko)

“Apparently, ‘foreign agents’ do more damage to our country, because the fine for failing to register as a ‘foreign agent’ is 300,000 rubles or more,” Kireeva said with bitter irony.

In March, the Russian Ministry of Justice included Bellona-Murmansk on its notorious roster of so-called “foreign agents,” which by now lists over ninety independent environmental, human rights, educational, charitable, and other NGOs, almost all refusing to accept the designation.

Murmansk Region’s officials are trying not to cause the KMMC unnecessary trouble, unless the absolutely have to, because the smelting enterprise is one of the main sources of tax revenues for the region. And well in accord with the spirit of the times, innuendos are made toward an unknown “evildoer” in the West: Murmansk officials with the environment ministry claim half the substances polluting the region are accounted for by “transboundary transfer,” though they fail to elaborate which country, or which enterprise in that country, or which pollutants bring environmental harm to the region.

and elsewhere

The topic of environmental monitoring spurred a lively discussion among the participants. Natalia Morozova, an activist from the town of Solnechnogorsk, in Moscow Region, said all stationary monitoring posts need to be “equipped with both non-specific analyzers and specific ones, which are particular for each industry.” And these measurements, Morozova said, should not be done by environmental activists: everything has to be corroborated by legitimate, convincing measurement results.

According to Morozova, “this has to be a certified organization, but by no means should it be Rospotrebnadzor,” the consumer rights and welfare supervision agency, which, Morozova said when she described Solnechnogorsk’s environmental problems at the industrial pollution discussion at the conference, refused to take measurements of emissions of three chemical productions in that town during winter.

solnechnogorsk_obelisk An obelisk marking the city limits of Solnechnogorsk. (Photo:

Morozova said Rosgidromet could be charged with that task.

The section’s moderator, head of the Russian-German Office of Environmental Information Angelina Davydova, said air quality monitoring is only carried out in 18 Russian regions. The largest monitoring system, she said, is operated by Rosgidromet, but the agency only gives access to paid information, and many regions cannot afford to buy the statistics.

Where air quality monitoring is done in parallel with other structures, data often diverge. For instance, three different entities monitor air quality in Moscow – and each produces different readings.

Noting other problems in this field, Davydova brought attention to the use of average values in the monitoring agencies’ reports – something that Russians, when they describe attempts to cite meaningless and uninformative statistical averages, refer to jokingly with the popular phrase “average temperature across the hospital.”

As discussion turned to other environmental hot spots in Russian regions, Greenpeace Russia’s press secretary Yevgeny Usov spoke of the harm that can be caused to the environment by hydroelectric power plants. Usov said he hoped the boom in the development of renewable energy sources will eventually change the situation enough that hydropower would become unneeded over time.

Until that happened, however, the EWNC’s Shevchenko suggested environmentalists lay their hopes with the deepening economic crisis – which with an enviable agility is closing harmful productions down and, in Shevchenko’s words, continues to be “the most active environmental organization in Russia.”