New Russian pollution report long on scary data, short on solutions

Inside the smelting works in the industrial city of Nikel.
Inside the smelting works in the industrial city of Nikel.
Courtesy of Vladimir Voronov

Publish date: September 26, 2017

In another surprisingly frank pronouncement on Russia’s health, the country’s environmental oversight agency has said 16 million of its citizens are breathing polluted air.

In another surprisingly frank pronouncement on Russia’s health, the country’s environmental oversight agency has said 16 million of its citizens are breathing polluted air.

The report from Russia’s Ministry of Natural Resources follows on other stark revelations made in April. That month Kremlin report said 74 percent of Russians were living in environmental degradation, and that 40 percent of them were drinking water that was unhealthy to consume.

That Russia fails to rank high in its efforts to control pollution and contamination comes as little surprise. In 2013, the cities of Dzerzhinsk and Norilsk both landed on a list of the world’s ten most polluted cities compiled by Switzerland’s Green Cross and New York-based Blacksmith. It was the second time these cities had done so in less than ten years, setting a record.

The dual blow of the ministry and Kremlin reports offer moments of rare introspection as Russia continues to observe its declared Year of Ecology – and it’s finding things are not good. Unfortunately, it’s not really discussing ways to improve them either.

Ironically, the government has brought much of this woe upon itself. The foreign agent law has silenced dozens of influential environmental advocacy organizations by essentially calling them spies and international puppets.

NGO Grafitti The office of a Russian NGO defaces with the words "foreign agent." Credit: Memorial

Corrupt environmental officials, meanwhile, are routinely paid off to ignore the problems they are supposed to fix. Even when laws are enforced, fines are laughably small, and environmental oversight agencies often don’t even bother to collect them.

In one instance last year, industrial giant Norilsk Nickel was fined a mere $530 (that’s five hundred and thirty) for contaminating an entire Siberian river.

Meanwhile, prosecutors recently charged that the Natural Resources Ministry has failed to collect $70 million in outstanding environmental fines in northern Russia alone. If all those fines are as small as the one handed to Norilsk Nickel, it would suggest the ministry has neglected to collect on 132,075 instances of entire-river poisoning.

Who knows what catastrophes that sum might mask?

These new reports are starting to put hard numbers on this legacy of fraud, misconduct and disorganization ­– and they should be making for disquieting conversation in official circles. So far they aren’t.

The new report, which was cited in the business daily Kommersant, said the number of Russians living in polluted environments constitutes 15 percent of the country’s urban population.

According to the report, more than three-quarters of city dwellers in the Siberian regions of Buryatia, Khabarovsk and Taimyr are vulnerable to high levels of air pollution. It goes on to say that air concentrations of pollutants in the industrial cities of Krasnoyarsk and Magnitogorsk routinely soar to more than 30 times that of maximum permissible levels.

And Norilsk again seemed to earn its most polluted status, whose mining and smelting works situate it among those Russian cities where breathing is hazardous to one’s health.

In total, said the report, Russia released 31.6 million metric tons of pollution into its air last year. Half of that was from industrial sources, which was followed in second place by vehicles.

ingressimage_nikel_view.jpg Central Nikel on the Kola Peninsula. Credit: Thomas Nilsen for Bellona

As is routine with official environmental reports in Russia, the new study offers no advice on how the government should go about coping with the problems it depicts.

Kommersant apparently felt that lack, too, and sought comment from someone identified as an environmentalist. Tatyana Chestina from Russia’s Green Movement suggested the government might want to introduce better terms for electric and zero emissions transport, and encourage its industries to use “best available technologies.”

In 2016, Bellona Murmansk suggested precisely that in a report it authored on sulfur dioxide emissions coming from the Kola Mining and Metallurgy Company, a branch of Norilsk Nickel. It was a suggestion that even the Natural Resources Ministry agreed was good.

Yet soon after, the organization was called a foreign agent, and its conclusions politically meddlesome, and it was forced to close to avoid costly court battles to clear its name.

The group, incidentally, committed most of its resources for the past three decades to helping Northern Russia rid itself of a legacy of radioactive nuclear submarine waste the Russian Navy parked there during the Cold War.

While recent pollution reports show a new level of government self-consciousness nine months into the official Year of Ecology, the Kremlin’s continued badgering of environmental non-profits casts doubt on whether Moscow is even serious about reeling in pollution.

Those with whom it could discuss possible solutions are growing fewer. By the end of the year, it might find itself more alone than ever.