Siberian Chemical combine keeps on contaminating underground waters

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In several days people living in Siberia will commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Tomsk nuclear accident of 1993, which was caused by violations at the Siberian chemical combine (SCC), also known as the Siberian Group of Chemical Enterprises. Today, when ten years have almost passed, SCC is still neglecting environmental regulations.

The trial started against SCC by inhabitants of the contaminated village of Georgievka is over. But trials initiated by people from another villages go on. All the people demand the combine should pay compensation for damage, caused by the accident of 1993.

But indemnity is not the sole object of the trials against SCC. One of the demands of people living in Georgievka in Tomsk county was that combine should stop dumping liquid radioactive wastes into underground geological formations. Regretfully, this demand, based on the combine’s lack of the required license, was rejected by the court.

Now environmentalists and ordinary citizens of Tomsk are trying again to put an end to the underground dumping of liquid radioactive waste.

On March 17th 2003, the Tomsk County Court started considering a claim against the Russian Nuclear Regulatory, or GAN. Persons, who brought suit to the court, want to revoke a radioactive dumping licence, which was granted to SCC by GAN in July 2001. The claimants think GAN had no right to issue such licence, because SCC dumps radioactive waste into underground waters in hazardous proximity to the city’s water wells.

The ban on dumping radioactive waste into geological formations was one of the demands at the trial of Georgievka inhabitants against SCC. The suit was lodged by 26 people of the village of Georgievka, which suffered severely from the nuclear accident in April 1993. 14 of the 26 claimants died since the suit was filed.

Nuclear accident of 1993
According to the official data, on April 6th 1993, an explosion ruptured the spent fuel reprocessing shop of the SCC radio-technology plant. A tank containing uranium, plutonium and niobium was destroyed. The blast ruined two storeys of the building. The radioactive gas release was carried by the wind north-east, causing radioactive contamination of 200 square kilometres. The accident was ranked four on the INES scale. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the release was caused by French spent nuclear fuel reprocessing, under the contract with the French company Cogema.

The accident could easily turn into disaster for the cities of Seversk and Tomsk, should the wind direction have been different. Population of the closed city of Seversk, former Tomsk-7, amounts to 177,000. The population of Tomsk is 500,000. All the samples made in the contaminated area, show hot particles with activity of 12 kBq — dangerous for human health. The contamination was ‘spotty’. Gamma-radiation in the area exceeded natural background radiation in 20 folds. Ministry for Nuclear Energy, or Minatom, admitted beta-contamination of the region only when local specialists, engaged by a non-governmental environmental organization, carried out an independent research.

Contaminated Georgievka
Decontamination in Georgievka was carried out during four months. Signs have been erected near the village to warn people against mowing grass and picking mushrooms and berries in the area.

— But people need to live somehow. Many of them gathered berries anyway, many of them fed cows and sheep with contaminated grass, — Konstantin Lebedev tells Bellona Web. Lawyer Lebedev is a consultant of the Tomsk Ecological Law Centre, who is demanding today that SCC stopped dumping radioactive waste. Seven years ago he initiated the trial ‘Georgievka vs the Siberian Chemical combine.’

Only after the 1993 accident people of Georgievka learned, how dangerous is the combine. They learned that SCC had suffered 22 accidents, four of them were ranked the third level on the INES scale. They also learned that under normal operation the combine releases 10 grams plutonium into the atmosphere annually, whereas one millionth of a gram may cause serious diseases if consumed by humans. Before Georgievka lodged the suit, all this information had been kept secret.

Georgievka vs SCC
Konstantin Lebedev tells about the beginning of the trial:

— In November 1995, I went to Georgievka and met its inhabitants. I asked them, what measures took the county administration to compensate the damage of the accident.

The first indemnity payment equalled $300, whereas the second was $500. The officials said the poor sums were not meant to cover the relocation from the contaminated area to another place. The money was paid only to compensate the time period when it was not possible to use small private farms in 1993. But people wanted to leave the village for good.

— One of my then acquaintances from Georgievka told me: ‘I think every morning, should I go outdoors or not, I can’t forget the disaster. I can fall asleep only when I’m drunk’, — Konstantin Lebedev says.

Before the accident Georgievka’s population was 52, including 11 children. Families with children left the village soon after the radioactive release and moved to the neighbouring Naumovka. The cattle born after April 1993 either died or lacked futility. Lebedev suggested that inhabitants should lodge a suit against the Siberian Chemical Combine. The 26 persons, who still lived in the village in 1995, because they had no other place to go, signed the suit.

— The old men used to say there would be no result. But because the amount of the suit due was small, we had nothing at risk, — Konstantin Lebedev says.

At that time it was the first trial of the kind. Georgievka demanded indemnity for moral damage, the accident accounted for. The claims were grounded at the fact that contamination is proved by the environment protecting bodies and SCC did not deny it. Violations of the safety regulations at SCC were also officially confirmed.

Also the claimants demanded that SCC stopped dumping radioactive wastes into the underground waters, pointing out that the accident did not have the major significant impact on the radioactive and chemical contamination of the area. The accident only partly lifted the veil of secrecy, surrounding the SCC activities.

No health damage suit was filed: the poor medical care in the village did not let to prove at the court that illnesses of the inhabitants were caused by SCC’s activities. No material charge was lodged either: the state due for such cases would have been too high, and there was little hope the court would agree on that.

— One of the Georgievka dwellers was a farmer. He had six cows, half a dozen pigs and large plough-lands. After the accident he had to do away with the pedigree livestock, because the cows were stricken with leukaemia. But it is too difficult to prove the disease was induced by radiation.

The farmer signed the suit too, even though he was a SCC’s employee. He told Lebedev, that right after the nuclear release, the combine sent its workers with gamma-radiation counters to decontaminate the adjacent areas. The state committees measured damage only after these preliminary decontamination works had been conducted, seemingly aimed at concealing the real nuclear harm. Shortly after the accident they found hot particles, and removed levels of snow and earth, woods, sometimes even roofs of country houses. The farmer had been a claimant for several years, but later SCC pressured him into refusing from his claims.

During the seven years of court sessions, a part of plaintiffs died, and a part left Georgievka. No special medical checkups had been carried out. The only medical care centre was located in a neighbouring village.

The court verdict: SCC pays indemnity, but keeps on dumping radioactive waste
The county court admitted that the accident was a serious moral injury, as it caused radioactive contamination of Georgievka and its outskirts. The documents read: "after the accident measurements were taken resulting in farms being decontaminated, signs indicating radioactive danger were put up at the village boundaries; pasture and harvesting were banned."

The court made SGCE pay each claimant an indemnity of $850. The Tomsk administration was not found responsible. At the same time however, the court permitted the combine to continue underground disposals of liquid radioactive waste, which had been carried out since 1963.

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Tomsk citizens’ attempt to halt dumping of the waste
Simultaneously with the Georgievka trial, a group of Tomsk inhabitants sought after waste dumping ban, contesting a license, granted to SCC by the Russian Geological Committee and Tomsk county administration.

According to the legislation, for liquid waste dumping SCC needs three licences: for use of the bowels of the earth, for use of water and a license for radioactive dumping.

The last document mentioned is issued only by GAN. The Geological Committee alone and Tomsk county administration had no right to grant the combine such a license. Their permit ‘For use of the bowels of the earth for dumping of liquid radioactive waste into underground waters’ could not substitute for the required document from GAN.

Tomsk inhabitants and lawyer Lebedev insisted SCC had no authorized license, but during four years of the trial, the Tomsk county court rejected the suit twice. And twice the Supreme Court sent the suit back for a new trial.

On March 17th 2001, the contested license expired, and at the third trial the court rejected the suit finally, because the point at issue was no longer in place.

The current trial
On July 19th 2001, GAN granted SCC the required licence. The Combine proudly announced that it was the first to obtain such licence of the three other Minatom’s enterprises, which conduct similar dumping.
But environmentalists and citizens of Tomsk say that dumping into underground waters is not permissible. And having permitted the dumping, GAN violated the legislation. Russian laws prohibit dumping radioactive and toxic substances into water (Water Code, article 104, Environmental Protection Law, article 51.2).
GAN’s representative at the court Sergey Konkov says SCC had all the necessary documents to get the license, but he admits, ‘nobody knows what’s happening with the waste pumped underground.’

At a session on March 19th 2003, the claimants found that the required environmental impact study was wrongly composed and actually contained neither positive nor negative conclusion.

The slow court
— We filed our suit in September 2001. The law stipulates the application should be considered in ten days. But, as you can see, half a year passed from the application to the first court session. Legal foot-dragging in Russia usually exceeds the term of the license contested, — Konstantin Lebedev says.

SCC faces another suits
The Georgievka trial is finished, the trial against liquid waste dumping continues. Inhabitants of the neighbouring villages of Naumovka and Chernaya Rechka brought actions against SCC as well.

Georgievka was officially declared as contaminated, whereas Naumovka, laying only eight kilometres from Georgievka, was not. But the radiation level in this village is the same as in Georgievka, a genetic research showed. The research was carried out by Nikolay Ilyinskikh, head of the biology and genetics department at the State Medical University in Tomsk. The suit, filed by Naumovka, was similar to the Georgievka’s one. But the claimants found no understanding in courts, which refused to take the results of the research into consideration. Recently, the inhabitants of Naumovka sent their suit to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It is quite possible SCC would have to pay them an indemnity anyway.

In the middle of April, a new suit against SCC will be considered. It was lodged by people from a remote taiga village Chernaya Rechka, with population of 200 people, which also suffered from the Tomsk nuclear accident. Dirt road to the village, passing through swamps, complicated the decontamination in that area. It seems like a symbol, that in 1993 the radioactive trace crossed the roads, connecting villages of Georgievka, Naumovka, and Chernaya Rechka and the city of Tomsk.

Ten years after the explosion
It is difficult to say, that something changed to the better at the Siberian Chemical Combine during the past 10 years. In June 1999, another accident contaminated the plant, and two workers were exposed to a radiation dose exceeding the annual three permitted level three folds.

According to the recent US-Russian agreements, two plutonium-breeding reactors of SCC would be shut down by 2005. The combine representatives insist that a nuclear plant must be built to employ the workers. But the Seversk NPP, if built, would seriously complicate the radioactive waste problem and aggravate the harm to the environment and people’s health.

Dumping of liquid radioactive waste into underground waters continues in violation of environmental legislation. And that is why the Tomsk nuclear accident remains a topic that should not be taken off the agenda.

Rashid Alimov

rashid@ecoperestroika.ru