Air quality control is key to cities’ ecological health, St. Petersburg conference participants agree

Conference poster for 'The Ecology of Russian Cities/Public Initiatives. (Image:Bellona)
Conference poster for 'The Ecology of Russian Cities/Public Initiatives. (Image:Bellona)

Publish date: September 28, 2015

Written by: Anna Kireeva

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG – Russian cities need stationary air quality monitoring stations, and their real-time readings must be made available to citizens online – was a conclusion voiced at the urban industrial pollution section of Bellona’s 5th annual environmental activists’ conference, “The Ecology of Russian Cities/ Public Initiatives,” in St. Petersburg, Russia.

ST. PETERSBURG – Russian cities need stationary air quality monitoring stations, and their real-time readings must be made available to citizens online – was a conclusion voiced at the urban industrial pollution section of Bellona’s 5th annual environmental activists’ conference, “The Ecology of Russian Cities/ Public Initiatives,” in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Coal dust holds Murmansk under siege

According to recent data from the World Health Organization, around 7 million deaths are attributed worldwide to poor air quality.

In Russia, too, air pollution is among the predominant issues affecting urban ecology – the focus of the conference that was held by the St. Petersburg-based Environmental Rights Center (ERC) Bellona in this Russian city on September 23-25.

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

The industrial pollution section of the conference started its discussion with an overview of the ecological problems of Murmansk – a large urban center and port on Russia’s Kola Peninsula and the world’s largest city beyond the Polar Circle.

According to Andrei Zolotkov, chairman of Bellona-Murmansk, some fifty years ago Murmansk Region suffered from the impact of transshipment of apatite and nepheline concentrates – products of processing of apatite-nepheline ores. One the mountains that was closest to the transshipment operations was colored yellow from the open-air loading. But in the 1980s, a covered transshipment complex was built, and the problem was solved.

Today, Murmansk is seeing a boom in transshipment of coal at its port, a problem compounded heavily by the fact that the port terminals are located practically in the center of the city, a mere kilometer from the closest residential neighborhoods. Coal transshipment volumes, initially not very high and with a relatively low environmental impact, have been growing dramatically with each year. Out of the total cargo turnover at the port, coal transshipment constitutes some 77 percent, approaching now some 15 million tons a year (in 2004, that figure was 8.8 million tons).

Since 2012, authorities in Murmansk, a city with a population of over 300,000, have been receiving numerous complaints from residents over black dust settling on their windows – pollution that for two years was discussed at the level of the residents’ correspondence with officials and that the latter until recently only referred to as “black deposit.”

The Scientific Research Institute of Atmospheric Air Protection (NII Atmosphere) studied the pollution and narrowed it down to two possible sources: the city’s combined heat and power plants and Murmansk Commercial Seaport.

This was until a certain especially egregious incident in winter 2015, when on a Saturday morning in February, after a day of stormy weather, Murmansk woke up to find itself literally buried under a layer of black snow. The incident was widely reported in the media; several local kindergartens on that day made the decision to keep the children in their care indoors to limit their exposure to dust. Given the widespread publicity, local authorities were forced into taking decisive action.

“Only then did the regional environmental officials placed the blame squarely with the [port]. After that, the ‘black deposit’ wasn’t called anything but ‘coal dust,’” Zolotkov said.

It should be noted that after February, the port has installed spray systems – one of the known ways of dust suppression that can be used at coal transshipment terminals to limit the spread of fine airborne coal dust – and began to report regularly on its pollution prevention activities; the possibility of installing special screens for dust suppression is being discussed.

“If this hadn’t happened, these studies searching for the sources of the pollution, without those who are responsible for it, could have gone on for dozens of years,” Zolotkov said.

coal-dust-on-Murmansk-Streets Coal dust on the streets of Murmansk emanating from the Commercial Port. Credit: Bellona

Coal dust spreading from transloading terminals is a problem that is not unique to Murmansk and it gives a major concern to environmentalists working with this issue. As one example, the Mackay Conservation Group, in Mackay, Australia, campaigned against plans for coal port expansion in the area citing risks of heart and respiratory disease caused by exposure to coal dust and pointing out that coal dust particulates contain heavy metals and that there may be no threshold at which coal dust is safe to breathe.

Sulfur threatens areas on Black and Azov Seas

And while Murmansk, in the north, has been struggling with dust from open-air transloading of coal, Russia’s south has had to deal with a colorful inventory of hazardous cargoes going through its ports on the Black and Azov Seas. According to Tatiana Tribrat, a representative of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC), in 2011, a public hearing took place in the major Black Sea port city of Novorossiisk on expanding the list of hazardous cargoes to be handled by the port.

The list of cargoes Novorossiisk now handles includes some 240 distinct items, of which 70 percent are hazardous shipments: oil products, gas condensates, mineral fertilizers, sulfur, and other cargoes.

These are also transshipped at the ports of Temryuk, Taman, and a couple of resort area locations in Krasnodar Krai.

According to Tribrat, it appears impossible to obtain information on the exact volumes of the shipments handled, nor on the cargoes’ owners.

Sea of Azov The Sea of Azov. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Media reports have also appeared out of Novorossiisk quoting locals’ complaints over what they reported as open-air storage of lump sulfur near residential buildings. Earlier, according to the EWNC, which brought the problem to the attention of federal authorities, local officials with the two federal supervision agencies – for environmental protection (Rosprirodnadzor) and protection of consumer rights and welfare (Rospotrebnadzor) – initiated administrative action (in Russian) against a terminal owner over a number of violations the authorities had found in sulfur transshipment operations.

And chemical pollution suffocates Moscow Region’s Solnechnogorsk

Solnechnogorsk, a town in Moscow Region, about 40 kilometers from the Russian capital, is home to three chemical plants that produce polyethylene terephthalate (PET) granules, public activist Natalya Morozova told the conference’s participants in St. Petersburg. One of the most common uses of PET granules is the production of preforms for plastic bottles.

The sanitary protection zone around one of the three Solnechnogorsk facilities is just 30 meters. Emissions from two of the plants, according to Morozova, include benzo(a)pyrene, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and a number of other harmful substances.

This causes great concern with local residents, Morozova said. They demand that authorities take measurements of peak emissions, which occur mostly at nighttime, to establish which particular pollutants are emitted and in which quantities.

But, Morozova said, measurements are conducted during periods when the facility is not working, or of substances that are not emitted at all. Additionally, for reasons that remain unexplained, the consumer rights oversight agency Rospotrebnadzor refuses to take measurements of emissions during winter.

“We need a stationary environmental monitoring station, and the authorities are only lobbying for mobile ones. Today, the way measurements are conducted is completely unacceptable: peak emissions take place at night, and measurements are taken only several days later – [it takes time] while residents complain, while a decision to conduct measurements is made, while the money is found…” Morozova said.

She also said that there are almost no locals among those employed at the plants – the employees are mostly residents of other towns.

That environmental monitoring is needed in cities was supported during the discussion by Yury Vdovin, of the St. Petersburg human rights advocacy Citizens’ Watch.

“Every person has the right to seek, obtain, and distribute information in any legal way,” Vdovin said, quoting the Russian Constitution.

In St. Petersburg, three departments are charged with monitoring air quality. But their activity is not time-efficient, and information is made available with significant time lags.

“No one wants to know what the air was like eight months ago,” Vdovin, who also serves as deputy chairman of ERC Bellona’s board, said.

This does not only happen in St. Petersburg or other Russian cities, but, according to Vdovin, in other countries as well: Environmental monitoring is conducted, but data may be practically unavailable.

“I am certain that monitoring results must be available to the citizens. Organizing such monitoring is expensive, but expenses on publishing the results are almost non-existent. NGOs should demand total monitoring of environmental parameters, with specialists and equipment involved,” Vdovin concluded.