European Court of Human Rights finds in favour of villagers suing the Siberian Chemical Combine

Publish date: April 30, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of 29 people from a Siberian village in their suit against the Russian state-run Siberian Chemical Combine, and has awarded them each € 2,000 ($3,100) for violating their right to have their case heard by Russian courts in a timely fashion.

The case could set a precedent for hundreds of other cases across Russia were locals are fighting nuclear installations for their right to compensation as a result of years of exposure to radioactive contamination.

In a David and Goliath story, residents of the tiny Naumovka village near Tomsk, attempted to prove in Russian courts that they, as well as residents of the neighboring village of Georgiyevka, had suffered as a result of the radioactive waste from the Siberian Chemical Combine, as well as from an explosion that occurred there on April 6th 1993.

Georgiyevka’s residents had received compensation in 2002 after both towns had lodged their claims in a Russian court in 1997. But Russian courts ruled that Naumovka was to far from the epicentre of the accident to receive a government settlement.

Residents of Naumovka tried, meanwhile, to bring a stop to the injection of liquid radioactive waste into aquifers, or underground cavities – a violation of the Russian water code – and filed an appeal.

In 2003, with an appeal on the original decision still outstanding, residents of Naumovka filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg over the excessive length of the proceedings, demanding 50,000 euros in compensation each.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled in their favour, but found their claims excessive.

"The European court has ruled that Russia pay 2,000 euros to 29 residents of the town of Naumovka each in moral damages," said Alexei Toporov, director of the Siberian Environmental Agency, a Tomsk-based non-governmental organization, in remarks reported by RIA Novosti.

The European Court of Human Rights decision said that the three-year delay in the case of Naumovka residents against the Combine was a violation of their rights.

In its ruling, the European Court of Human Rights constituted a violation of article 6, paragraph 1 of the European Convention “guaranteeing every citizen the right to a fair hearing in a reasonable amount of time.”

The case for the Naumovka litigants was argued by Konstantin Lebedev, who had earlier secured compensation for Georgiyevka.

“We have already suffered from the operations of the Siberian Chemical Combine – several villages were contaminated by the 1993 accident, however these villages have still not been evacuated,” Zinaida Kolomoitseva, an environmental activist from Naumkovo told Bellona Web.

“(The Combine) needs to cease dangerous operations, otherwise residents all over Russia are at risk of ending up in the same position as us,” she said.
[picture1 left]“The legal process in Russia dragged, but did not take into account the conclusion of scientists on the impact of the Combine on the health of the residents. Since the birth of a two-headed calf in the village in May of 2006, the mood of the populace has been gloomy, and people don’t expect anything good on the horizon,” said Kolomoitseva.

Yury Lirmak, director of Citizens’ Defence, commented on earlier decisions of the Russian courts, saying, “you can make progress in Geiger counters and video cameras, but there has been no progress in human rights.”

Lirmak noted that there were local legal instruments that could have helped.

“The citizens of Naumovka could easily have won their case on the basics of the Russia law “On radiation safety,” which the Tomsk regional administration has been considering for some time, but which for some reason has not been adopted yet,” he said.

The Siberian Chemical Combine is one of the four locales in Russia that accept radioactive waste from Germany and France for storage, which is brought there by rail from the St. Petersburg port.

“I can say outright that I don’t like it when they bring 1,000 tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride, enrich it to the specified condition, send it back, and almost 90 percent of the waste remains on our territory,” Yury Zubkov, chief of the department of radiation safety for the Tomsk regional committee for environmental preservation, said in an interview with Bellona Web.

“Maybe the price of uranium will grow to a point that it is profitable to recycle (the waste) but no one knows when that will be. And if the price doesn’t go up, it remains with us forever here in Russia.”

Zubkov added: “Aside from that, it is not only us, but the residents and the greens that don’t like it that all of this material comes through populated sections of Tomsk."

Russia is one of the most frequent defendants at the European Court of Human Rights. The court has considered a total of 46,700 cases against Russia over the past ten years, comprising 20 percent of all lawsuits submitted.

The court has made 397 rulings on Russia in the past 10 years, or 5 percent of the total number of cases during this period. A total of 23,000 cases are currently pending against Russia.