Bellona urges Russia to address ‘criminal’ shortfalls in toxic waste disposal

ThinkstockPhotos-464435822 Credit: Think Stock Photos

Russia’s abiding trash wars have drawn the eye of a curious world as swelling protests in the streets and overflowing landfills in the countryside become a common site. But a new report by Bellona’s Russian offices reveals that there’s a darker, harder to see side to the garbage crisis, which could be even more dangerous to human health and the environment than problems of household waste.

At issue is the Russian government’s apparent lack of control over how dangerous chemical wastes are dealt with. Everyday products like fluorescent light bulbs, cells phones, thermometers, and lead batteries belong to forms of waste whose damage to the environment is measured not in years but in decades – often centuries.

But both Russian industries and the government account for these dangers sloppily, if at all, which means that tons of refuse containing harmful substances are disposed of in harmful and hazardous ways. What’s more is that many Russian businesses try to sidestep laws meant to monitor harmful rubbish by simply mislabeling or misreporting what they cast off.

The end result is a chaotic system that makes it nearly impossible to account for – let alone safely dispose of – products containing materials as dangerous as cyanide, heavy metals, refrigerants, industrial solvents, lead and many others.

“Many issues of handling such waste fall into a grey area, which borders on the criminal,” said Alexander Nikitin, head of Bellona’s St Petersburg office, whose waste experts just published a new Russian Language report called “Handling Class I and II Wastes – the Current Situation and Perspectives.”

bodytextimage_nikitin4833.JPG Bellona's Alexander Nikitin Credit: Bellona

As the report’s title suggests, the Russian government does have categories for such lethal substances. Class II wastes are characterized as substances that prevent ecosystem restoration for as long as 30 years. Class I wastes prevent ecosystem restoration forever.

According to available statistics, Russia produces some 400,000 tons of such wastes per year. The real figure, however, is unknown and almost certainly towers above this official tally.

Russian industries are required to declare how much Class I and II wastes they produce, but many do so on such a selective basis that government figures on what substances they are casting off for disposal are unreliable.

For instance, as Nikitin told a press conference accompanying the report’s release, there are 444 different forms of waste accounted for in the Class I and II categorizations.

But in 2017, more than 94 percent of the all wastes recorded by Russian industry were made up of only two kinds of waste: mercury lamps and lead batteries. Dozens of other hazardous substances that count as Class I or II wastes appear to have gone unreported.

In other cases, industries simply don’t report the life threatening wastes they are producing at all. Viktoriya Markova, of the Interregional Initiative Group for the Environmental Safety of St Petersburg and the Leningrad Region, said many Russian businesses think it’s unprofitable to fess up to the kind of wastes they are disposing of.

Yet more problems arise when it comes to keeping an inventory of the harmful substances that have been stored by industry for disposal. Of the 4288 sites on record as housing Class I and II wastes, virtually nothing is known of the specific kinds of wastes they are holding.

At the moment, however, there are very few industrial scale plants in Russia that are geared toward neutralizing and disposing of such dangerous refuse, and nearly all of them are in the private sector. But even among those that do exist, there is no unified method of disposing of these classes of waste, which leads to inconsistencies in how they are eventually decontaminated or disposed of.

For this reason, the Bellona report urges, it’s critical that overarching federal criteria for dangerous waste storage and disposal be developed, as no uniform approach yet exists.

“It’s impossible to simply transfer this area into the hands of exclusively private business, which are doing it now, and tomorrow, for various reasons, might stop,” said Nikitin.

As dire as the situation is, the Russian government seems open to improving its role in determining how Class I and II wastes are catalogued and disposed off. According to a Russia government decree, $269 million will be allocated to retrofit chemical weapons destruction facilities so they can be used to dispose of hazardous industrial and chemical refuse.

Charles Digges

charles@bellona.no