Krasnoyarsk environmentalists cleared of wrong doing


Publish date: April 12, 2007

Written by: Vera Ponomareva

Translated by: Charles Digges

ST. PETERSBURG - In a rare act of apparent leniency toward Russia’s anti-nuclear movement, prosecutors in the central Siberian town of Kransnoyarsk tossed out a case against environmentalists who had discovered radioactive contamination along a riverbank.

The environmentalists had initially been under investigation for “illegal handling radioactive material,” which carries with it a 10-year jail sentence.

The activists, Vladimir Mikheyev and Vitaly Khizhnyak of the Citizens’ Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation (CCNN) had earlier been the subject of a criminal investigation by the Kransnoyarsk Regional Prosecutors’ office for discovering and delivering for proper disposal radioactive waste found along the banks of the Yenesei River. Prosecutors contested that their actions were against the law.

But last week, Krasnoyarsk’s Administration of Internal Affairs tossed the case aside, saying the activists had “acted in the interests of society’s safety.”

“We knew this case hung by a thread,” said Mikheyev in an interview with Bellona Web.

“It was clear that the criminal case was baseless. What we did was a good deed, we cleaned the territory and passed on the (radioactive) material for storage with a specialized agency.”

Activists dodge a bullet
Indeed, the charges against the environmentalists would seem odd under different circumstances. But the Russian environmental movement as a whole has come under extreme pressure from government circles. Organisations operating in Siberia, where there is a host of Soviet-era weapons facilities as well as huge business interests, have been in recent years the target of special harassment for interfering with potential industrial growth.

These interests are often closely linked with those of local law enforcement agencies, virtually guaranteeing that projects geared toward charting radioactive and other waste will fall under the scrutiny of Russia’s special services.

That Krasnoyarsk’s CCNN would have dodged more serious consequences for raising the alarm in Russia’s current political climate is surprising, given the harsh treatment other organisations have received at the hands of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

The case against CCNN
This is not to say that the organisation has not escaped other forms of persistent official harassment.

In March, the Krasnoyarsk Region Prosecutors’ Offices passed information about the alleged illegal acquisition and distribution of radioactive materials to the Krasnoyarsk police for investigation.

Such was precisely the competent activity of Mikheyev and Khizhnyak during an expedition arranged by the CCNN in spring of 2006.

During their investigations, the environmentalists discovered so-called hot radioactive particlels along the bank of the Yenesei River – one of Siberia’s largest water sources – that had escaped into the environment from the Mining and Chemical Combine (MCC). The five particles of hot material were found near the village of Bolshoi Balchug.

The material and surrounding soil were extracted by the environmentalists and taken safely to Krasnoyarsk, where they were put into storage at the Kvant facility, which specializes in handling such material.

Mikheyev expressed his suspicion in interviews that local law enforcement was working on “orders” from higher ups.

“Someone in the Krasnoyarsk region does not like our intensive activity, so it they decided to pressure, intimidate us,” Mikheyev said. He added, thought, that his organisation would not cease its further investigations.

Law enforcement officials in Krasnoyarsk could not be reached for comment on the matter.

Radioactive cover up?
According to Mikheyev, Kvant is, despite its private status, a “government organisation” that is complicit in an effort to keep a lid on the radioactive hazards present in the Krasnoyarsk Region.

In December, Mikheyev told a gathering of the Krasnoyarsk Governor’s office coordinating committee for radiation safety about the results of his expeition along the Yenesei. He also said that Kvant, which had received the material he and his team collected, never issued him – despite repeated requests – the documentation indicating that the hot particles had been passed into Kvant’s care.

But rather than receive commendations for their actions, Mikheyev and his organisation were cited in the minutes of the gathering as having breached laws on transporting radioactive materials, including the hot particles, and for not having a license to handle or transport radioactive materials.

Prosecutorial feeding frenzy
The environmentalists activities were immediately taken up for investigation by four different prosecutorial bodies – the regional railway prosecutor in the Krasnoyarsk Region, the Krasnoyarsk Environmental Prosecutor, the Sverdlovsk Regional Prosecutor and the Krasnoyarsk Regional Prosecutor.

Audits of the organisation began. Administrative action was levied against it for failing to submit registration data to Russian registration officials. The organisation was found guilty of this charge and was forced to pay a $100 fine. CCNN’s financial records have meanwhile been under scrutiny by Russia’s tax authorities for the past three years.

“I would not be surprised if the decision not to bring criminal charges against us will bring other absolutely contradictory ones,” said Mikheyev.

“Hot” particles
The radioactive particles found by Mikheyev are irradiated graphite, fuel, and uranium that washed out into the Yenesei during a post-accident clean up at one of the MCC’s reactors. The particles have tremendous specific activity and powerful gamma-radiation.

MCC annually conducts searches for and removes hot particles from the Yenesei’s banks. But in 2006, the yearly search was impeded by high floodwaters.

"The aim of our survey was to draw attention to this problem and get the MCC to work on it," said Mikheyev.

MCC seeks closer ties with environmental movement
In February, after an intensive campaign in the press, the environmentalists got a response from the MCC’s management. MCC Director Pyotr Gavrilov acknowledged the problem of radioactive contamination along the Yenesei banks and invited the CCNN to take part in the next survey in spring and summer of 2007.