Metal smelting plant was taken at its word

Publish date: July 22, 2002

Written by: Rashid Alimov

Although Sosnovy Bor authorities have withdrawn a suit banning the import of radioactive metal waste into the town, Ekomet-S, the importer of that waste, has agreed on its own to cease such imports for the time being, though the company says it doesn't want to hold off forever.




On July 31st, St Petersburg’s Court of Arbitration will be again considering the suit filed by the authorities of Sosnovy Bor against Ekomet-S.

At the previous arbitration session, which was the second, Sosnovy Bor authorities withdrew one of their suits.

The radioactive metal smelting plant Ekomet-S is situated on the premises of the Leningrad Nuclear Power plant (LAES), only few hundred meters away from the shore of the Baltic Sea shore and four kilometres from Sosnovy Bor’s 60,000 inhabitants. The closed nuclear town itself is located 80km from St Petersburg.

The plant was built secretly and without an environmental impact study, which is required by Russian legislation.

The facility, which is devoted to the smelting and decontamination of radioactive metals for resale on the open market, was built by the Ministry for Nuclear Energy — the notorious Minatom — and fissile fuel monopolists hoping to cash in on the smelting of radioactive metal waste from nuclear power plants across Russia. Gazprom-bank invested $10m in the project.

The very fact that a private plant is located at the territory of the state-run LAES may be considered a violation of the current legislation. In late 2001, a group of LAES security guards published an open letter in which they claimed that since the opening of the smelting plant, they had been exposed to radiation. Their contracts, they noted, had not stipulated they would be working in conditions that exposed them to radiation hazards.

“Our attempts to learn the radioactive background level at the checkpoints meets counteraction,” the guards wrote. “The radioactivity of the departing automobiles is measured by an Ekomet-S worker, who in fact represents an interested party. The arriving autos are not checked at all.”

The technology of processing and smelting adopted by the plant was considered dangerous by several researches of a local radiological laboratory. But Ekomet-S keeps on saying that this risky technology is good old Russian know-how that backward Westerners cannot invent.

And today, in spite of all the violations, the metal smelting plant is working.


The suits filed
On May 15th, the suits were filed with St Petersburg Court of Arbitration by the Council of Representatives of the local parliament of Sosnovy Bor.

The Council, moved by grassroots concern, pronounced the imports of metal radwaste from different corners of Russia to Sosnovy Bor to be illegal. Ekomet-S has no right for imports because it has no state environmental impact study for any activity, to say nothing of the fact that it has no licence for transportation of radioactive materials outside the territory of LAES.

Nevertheless, the metal smelting plant is active in the imports. Bellona Web reported earlier, that a train car with radioactive metal waste from Chepetsk mechanical plant in Udmurtia, arrived at the passenger terminal of Sosnovy Bor last fall. Ten casks filled with 20 tonnes of radwaste each, each exceeding the natural background radioactivity by 1000 times. Neither the car, nor the casks had the required danger markings. According information acquired by Bellona Web, in 2001 such shipments were regular.

Moreover, the claimants demanded that activities of Ekomet-S should be suspended, until the state environmental impact study is carried out. The Council of Representatives also insisted that the official Act of Launching the Plant should be annulled. The Act was signed by Minatom Deputy Minister Valery Lebedev on February 12th 2002, despite of lack of the environmental impact study and the protest of administration of Sosnovy Bor.

In another suit, the authorities of Sosnovy Bor demanded that licence, given to Ekomet-S by the local branch of the Ministry for Natural Resources, should also be declared invalid.

First court session: filed suits almost failed
But on June 26th — the first arbitration court hearing — Sosnovy Bor’s Council of Representatives was absolutely unprepared.

When the session began, it turned out, that the suits had been signed by an unauthorized official. The judge recommended that the suit should be lodged not from the Council, but from the administration of Sosnovy Bor. According to Russian laws, the legislative branch is not authorized to file such suits.

Moreover, the Council of Representatives changed the subject and basis of the suits. Particularly, they swapped the demand to ban imports for demand to suspend the activities of Ekomet-S.

The initial subject of the suits was also changed. First the claimants had based their position on the fact that the smelting plant — without proper permission — increased its design capacity from five to eight tonnes of metal radwaste per year. At the first court session the Council claimed another basis: the lack of the all important state environmental impact study.

Before the court session, the judge tried to help the Council and suggested they not to change the suit, but they did not listen. The judge even sent them a list of questions to be addressed before the hearing, but the claimants appeared in the court unprepared for the trial. That accounted for the postponement of the July 8th session.

Another suit against the Ministry for Natural Resources was postponed until July 31st because of a reorganization of the ministry, which is being carried out currently. As a result, there is some mystery as to whom should represent the ministry in court.


Second court session: the suit recalled
On the July 8th session, the claimant’s side was represented by the local administration, as is required by Russian law.

But here awaited an unpleasant surprise — during deliberations, the claimants withdrew the suit, just because Ekomet-S promised not to import waste.

“We’ve made a step toward the Council and for the present we’ll keep ourselves from imports of metal radwaste to Sosnovy Bor,” the plant’s representatives claimed.

Alexey Pavlov from the Environmental Rights Centre Bellona says this courtroom corridor promise has no legal force:

“Verbal promise to abstain from imports ‘for the present’ doesn’t hold Ekomet-S to any obligations.”

But the authorities of Sosnovy Bor seemed to be satisfied with the promise, and signed a formal refusal of suit in court.

“That’s a sabotage”
The danger is that the Council of Representatives chose the wrong tactics and strategy to contest the activities of Ekomet-S.

Alexey Pavlov has visited Sosnovy Bor many times, met with local authorities, and consulted with them on the trial. But his recommendations were rejected. Local authorities did exactly the opposite of what Alexey advised.

It also turned out that the authorities were using NGO’s as a cloak for their veiled sympathy for Ekomet-S. Before the second session, the head of the local environmental organization “Green World” Oleg Bodrov was excluded from the claimant team. After that he was not informed about changes of the suit demands.

Regretfully, the position of local authorities is no mystery for this city — born for life in the world of nuclear technologies, and existing on Minatom’s money.

The other suits will be considered
Bellona Web already reported that Oleg Bodrov, representing Green World and ERC Bellona, lodged their own suits to the other courts — in Sosnovy Bor and in Moscow, where Ekomet-S has its legal address.

These suits were filed as a safety net of sorts, filed on the advice of Alexey Pavlov, who foresaw the sabotage of the main suits.

State Duma Deputies Yuly Rybakov and Alexander Shishlov supported the claim to the court of Sosnovy Bor.

But so far, despite the concern of the deputies, the decision in Sosnovy Bor has not been taken, and the judge is now on leave. The decision in Moscow also has not been made.