Environmental impact assessment can become history in Russia

frontpageingressimage_ruki_proch_small.jpg Photo: Greenpeace

Despite the environmentalists’ protests the State Duma, lower house of the Russian Parliament, passed the amendments in the second reading stipulating the cancellation of the environment impact assessment for the construction projects. 361 parliament members voted in favour of the amendments, while 50 were against and one parliamentarian abstained. 

Draft law ”On Amendments in Town Planning Code of the Russian Federation” was proposed to the Russian State Duma by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party members from the Duma Industrial Committee. The draft passed the first reading on September 20th. Masked by “elimination of administrative obstacles and creation the conditions to increase house construction” the draft law eliminates completely environmental impact assessment for any sites, including nuclear power plants, steel plants and oil pipelines.

The amendments deprive the people of the possibility to control the actions of the state and question them in court, believes Alexander Nikitin, the chairman of the Environmental Right Centre Bellona.

”Step by step the citizens are being deprived of the legal base to express protest in any situation beginning with the build-up of houses in the parks and ending up with the construction of the nuclear waste storage facility.”

”The new draft law violates the Constitution in the chapter “Freedoms and Liberties of the Man and Citizen,” said Nina Popravko, the lawyer of the Environment Rights Centre Bellona.

Not only environmental NGOs, but the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage and the Duma Environmental Committee are also against the amendments. The Russian Public Chamber and the Moscow City Duma made a special statement protesting against the law. Even the representatives of the Russian industrial giants “Norilsk Nikel” and “Lukoil” said the environmental impact assessment should remain intact.

”We voted against three times. It stands in the decision of the Environmental Committee that adoption of the amendments in the present view would eliminate all kinds of supervision and control over construction activity, including fire, sanitation-and-epidemiological and environmental controls,” said the chairman of the Duma Environmental Committee Vladimir Grachev in an interview with Bellona.ru.

According to Grachev, the amendments violate the constitutional rights of the citizens and contradict the main principles of the environment protection listed in the federal laws ”On the Environment Protection” and ”On the Environmental Expertise”. Taking away the state environmental impact assessment out of the decision-making process will lead to significant social tensions, first of all, in industrial Russian cities.

The representatives of the Russian Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage also believe that amendments to the law threaten the social prosperity, environment and people’s health. “The Norms of the State Environmental Expert Review are unavailable only in two countries: Zimbabve and Gonduras. Now Russia is joining them” said the deputy director of the Service.

On November 21st, Mitvol supported Greenpeace activists apprehended for arranging picket against the amendments. Despite the crowds of Special Forces near the Duma one of the activists managed to raise the banner “Duma, hands off environmental expertise!”

Mitvol said the police that Greenpeace protest was peaceful and requested to set the five apprehended members free, what confirms the legality of the Greenpeace demands.

What can NGOs do?
At present environmental evaluation of the projects includes several procedures. It is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is obligatory for the investor and it then becomes the subject for public hearings, and State Environmental Review carried out by the independent specialists. Besides the law gives the citizens and public organisation the possibility to carry out public environmental impact assessment, conclusion of which is taken into consideration in the State Environmental Review.

The new law proposes to substitute the state environmental review by the experts’ evaluation of the project documentation, which evaluates the conformity of the project documentation to the demands of the technical regulations. Following the cancellation of the state environmental review it is no more necessary to conduct the other environmental evaluations. The public evaluation is also losing its legal status.

How the public organisations will function after cancellation of all kinds of environmental evaluation? “They force us to make protests and then will charge us with extremism,” Nikitin said.

According to Karpov, without the possibility to influence the state the environmentalists will contribute to Russia’s credit rating reduction. Karpov hoped that “no western investment fund or international financial institution will allocate money for a project, which did not through environmental evaluation.”