Residents of contaminated village to be resettled across river from former dwelling

The radiation near the water channel for liquid radioactive waste from Mayak is much higher than normal background.
Thomas Nilsen

Publish date: November 8, 2006

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

CHELYABINSK/ ST. PETERSBURG – The village of Muslyumovo’s 3,500 remaining mostly Tartar residents, who have lived for nearly 50 years along the radioactively contaminated banks of the Techa River, and whose Russian population was relocated decades ago, may finally be moving themselves – to the polluted river’s opposite side in an initiative spearheaded by the Chelyabinsk Regional government, officials here told Bellona Web.

Locals, who have long dealt with the radioactive hazards poured on them by the Techa River Cascade, took the suggestion as an insult, and Muslyumovo residents and ecologists are speaking out against the proposal, demanding that local officials cast a wider net in the search for a new village for Muslyumovo’s inhabitants.

“Everyone is leaning toward the station, that’s the final solution ” said Ilya Ananyev, chief of the Chelyabinsk gubernatorial press office in reference to the Muslyumovo train station, located a mere three kilometrers from Muslyumovo itself. At present, some 700 people live in and around the station, Ananyev told Bellona Web.

For years, Muslyumovo and the areas surrounding – which are some of the most radioactively contaminated places on earth – have been a hot bed of radioactive contamination because of accidents and substandard waste disposal techniques at the Mayak Chemical Combine, located in the Chelyabinsk Region in the town of Ozersk in Russia’s southern Ural Mountains.

Between 1949 and 1956, radioactive contaminants were dumped into the Techa River to such a degree that some 124,000 residents living along its banks had to be evacuated.

Not counted among those who were invited to take part in the exodus, however, were the Tartar residents of Muslyumovo – a blatantly anti-Muslim move on the part of the Krushchev administration. Fences were erected, signs put up and other stop-gap measures were taken, but Muslyumovo residents and others who remained behind largely ignored the warnings and continued to draw water and from and fish in the contaminated river. They had no other choice.

In recent years, the necessity of evacuating Muslyumovo’s residents has taken on more urgency in Russia’s corridors of power, and plans have been discussed to relocate the population, but nothing has found tread until recently.

Rostatom and the presidential administration, having developed a scheme to relocate the residents, gave Muslyumovo’s residents a choice – either move to the new village, or take 1 million roubles ($37,000) to buy their own homes.

The location of the new village has been a bone of contention for a number of months now because the new village seems simply to have sprung up across the river around Muslyumovo station.

“You can’t move people to the station – such a decision will delay the present problem for another 10 years,” said Nedezha Kutepova, the chairwoman of the Ozersk-based ecological and human rights organisation Planet of Hopes in an interview with Bellona Web.

Kutepova said that conditions surrounding the station were no better than the ones residents would be leaving behind. People still let their cattle graze the banks of the Techa on the station side, which is only a half a kilometer from their home. “These people have to be relocated themselves.”

Despite the fact that a half a century has passed since a waste tank at Mayak blew up and showered the countryside with radioactive fallout – a sort of preview to Chernobyl – the contaminated zone is still populated with people. Tatarskaya Karabolka, Musakaeva, and Ust-Bagryak are some of the villages that still eke out a living along the banks of the Techa.

The ‘motherland’ of the ill
But as far as the Chelyabinsk Regional Government is concerned, the residents of the area should not stray too far, even if it is from an ecological disaster area.

”First, they were born there. The motherland is the motherland,” Ananyev told Bellona Web in an interview in Chelyabinsk. Indeed, there is nothing to argue – since the accident in 1957, Muslyumovo became the motherland for three generations of people suffering from inborn pathologies and oncological deseases.

The second reason given by administration is the lack of funds. On October 23rd, Petr Sumin, the governor of the Chelyabinsk Region, told the regional government to develop a plan for moving people from Muslyumovo to Missky village close to Chelyabinsk. But the bureacracy concluded the plan was not permissable.

”We have no opportunity to move people there because it will be much more expensive” Ananyev said.

Aside from that, it turned out that the land offered by Missky was the sanitary zone of a sewage treatment plant.

”We are like pawns in someone else’s game,” a woman who identified herself only as Ramziya told Bellona Web in an interview in Musyumovo. ”Big sums of money are in play and they are just moving us to the other side of the river, like on a chessboard.”

Rosatom chief Sergei Kirienko, during a visit to the Chelyabinsk region in spring 2006, announced that the residents of Muslyumovo would be moving, and Rosatom earmarked 600 million roubles for the project – with another 450 million coming from the regional budget. The bulk of this money will be spent on building the new village near Muslyumovo station.

Some residents against the plan
Muslyumovo residents say that the new location of the village was picked without taking their interests into account.

“You give us such an opportunity and we want to move somewhere clean so we don’t have to move 10 times,” said Ramziya.

Take the money and run
Data collected in a questionnaire showed that the majority of families in Muslyumovo want to take their state-promised million roubles and leave. Some 300 (less than half the residents of the village) said they would agree to live near the station. Subsequently, however, the number of those who would agree to live there took a nosedive.

According a survey, carried out in September by a group selected for the purpose, residents of only 60 homes in the village wish to move to the station area, which is less than 10 percent of the 741 current homes in the village.

But Rosatom is trying.

“If it is only 10 families that move to the housing development at the station, we will build them homes all the same,” said Advisor to Rosatom Head Igor Konyshev in an interview with Bellona Web.

The new development will include not only homes, but schools, kindergartens, stores – the gamut, including Mosques – said Rosatom’s Ananyev. The plans for the development have already been laid out, he said.

“It was worked out in the 1990s, “said Kutepova. “And now the regional administration wants to save money on its design.”

Other variants
Muslyumovo residents held a gathering on September 12th, during which the majority of them said they would prefer to move to a clean suburb of Chelyabinsk, and sent an official appeal to the regional administration, Rosatom and the president.

After the gathering, Muslyumovo residents struck out to find a new prospective home for themselves, finding the village of Kremenkul, some 15 kilometres from Chelyabinsk. The presidential administration and the private contractors who would build the new development were on the residents’ side.

But the Chelyabinsk Administration and Rosatom shot the idea down. Both were afraid of skyrocketing prices of building the replacement development on private land as opposed to state land, where the station is located. This torpedoed the safer location in favor of holding costs down.

“It makes absolutely no difference to us how many people move to New Muslyumovo – but on the area of the station, we can guarantee costs, quality, deadlines,” Rosatom’s Konyshev said. “But when you start dealing with private land, a whole new mechanism starts churning.”

Konyshev said that private owners could duck their obligations, leaving Muslyumovo residents empty-handed.

But this should not be a problem for such large administrative bodies as Rosatom, said Nina Popravko, a lawyer with Bellona St. Petersburg.

”Business relationships can always be settled. The main thing is a correctly composed agreement which compells both parties to fulfill its conditions. By refusing to conduct this work, authorities admit their helplessness.”

Information centre
An information centre for Musyumovo residents was opened two weeks ago by Rosatom. According to Rosatom officials, the centre will be a busy hive of laywers, real estate specialists, representatives of local and regional authorities and non governmental organisations (NGOs). Yet so far, the centre’s only employee is Vera Ozhogina, who also heads up Nabat, an NGO that supports the resettlement of Musyumovo’s residents to the area of the station.

Kirienko visit postponed until end of November

Rosatom head Kirienko was scheduled to visit the area on November 1st, but the night before he was to come, his visit was shuffled to the end of Novemeber due to what his spokesmen said was a change in his working schedule.

But Kutepova had her own ideas about why the visit was postponed.

”The local administration wanted to show a free space (for New Musylomovo) with levelers working and people queuing up at the information centre. There is none of that now,” she said.