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Russia: Oil Spill Highlights Tragic Environmental Legacy

  • Chloe Arnold --> Aftermath of the spill (epa) November 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- By some estimates, it will take the Black Sea region's delicate marine environment five to 10 years to recover from the oil spill that resulted from a recent storm.

Waves approaching 6 meters high pounded ships plying the Kerch Straight connecting the Black and Azov seas on November 11. The "Volganeft-139," carrying about 4,000 tons of oil, split in two in the course of the storm, causing it to spill about half of its contents into the narrow straight.

Four ships sank to the bottom, including two vessels carrying a combined 7,000 metric tons of sulfur.

The devastation left in the wake of the storm was staggering. At least five seamen were lost on the day and tens were missing. Endangered species such as the Dalmatian pelican and the great black-headed gull were seen coated in oil, as the region awaits the arrival of thousands of migratory birds that nest along the waterways during winter. Fish caught in Kerch Straight have been deemed unsafe to eat, threatening the livelihoods of locals. And dolphins swimming the waters are threatened by waters registering oil pollution 30 times higher than normal.

Soiled Image

Russian state television broadcast images of officials from the Emergency Situations Ministry rushing to the scene to mount a rescue effort and massive clean-up operation. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov flew to the scene the day after the disaster to survey the damage. A presidential decree was issued calling for all means to be used to protect the local fauna.

The Russian government has applauded the swift response to the country's worst-ever oil spill, but environmentalists are citing the disaster as the latest example of an inherited legacy of ecological ineptitude.

The "Volganeft-139," for example, was a 1970's designed single-hulled tanker that was licensed only for river transport. It was not intended for use on the open sea.

Igor Chestin, director of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Russia, says one of the ill-fated vessels carrying sulfur has a similar history.

"The other vessel, 'Volganeft-123' -- according to the register it didn't exist actually, so that ship was already outdated and had been taken off all the lists," Chestin says. "That vessel simply shouldn't have been in that area."

Most distressing to many environmentalists, is that such oversight is a result of a system that has long polluted Russia's collective mindset when it comes to the environment.

The waters of the region -- the Black and Azov seas and the Kerch Straight -- were by no means pristine before what is now being called Russia's worst oil spill. A report by the United Nations Environment Program outlines threats to the Black Sea from chronic overfishing, high levels of pollution, large discharges of raw sewage, damaging levels of coastal erosion, and the suffocating impact of sludge and mud dredged from nearby ports.

For Sergei Tsyplyonkov, the executive director of Greenpeace Russia, there is a simple explanation.

"In my opinion, the situation that surrounds this catastrophe illustrates the general attitude of the Russian government to questions of ecology," Tsyplyonkov says. "Beginning at the end of the 1990s and the start of 2000, the Russian leadership has clearly demonstrated the direction it intends to follow. And it is this: that the Russian government is prepared to pay the ecological price for economic development."

The Soviet era, he adds, was catastrophic for the environment. High world oil prices in the 1970s and 1980s meant the Soviet leadership had at its disposal vast sums of money, which it spent on nuclear reactors and diverting rivers to increase irrigation.

Legend has it that one Soviet official, when questioned about the construction of a giant and potentially lethal paper mill on the shores of the world's largest freshwater lake, said that "even Lake Baikal must work for the advancement of the Soviet regime."

Constructing An Environment

The failures of the Soviet environmental mindset are well-documented.

The explosion at the Chornobyl reactor in Soviet Ukraine in 1986 is considered the world's worst nuclear disaster.

The diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in Central Asia following the Bolshevik revolution had a devastating impact on the Aral Sea straddling present-day Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The landlocked sea has been shrinking since the 1960s, and is heavily damaged as a result of agricultural and industrial pollution.

A ship laden with radioactive waste rested on the floor of Lake Ladoga, which supplies St. Petersburg with fresh water, for 30 years until it was removed in 1991.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the establishment by Russia of an Environment Ministry brought fresh hope for the restoration of the country's ravaged environment. But the Environment Ministry was short-lived. In the late 90s it was downgraded to a state committee, and in 2000 it was abolished entirely, and its functions being divvied up among a handful of separate agencies.

The main organ today is the Natural Resources Ministry, which includes the Federal Forestry Agency, the Mining Agency, and the Water Resources Agency. It also includes Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, which is in charge of waterways and endangered species.

Rostekhnadzor, meanwhile, monitors nuclear and technological areas, while the Veterinary Service looks after animal welfare. The Federal Security Service's border guards are in charge of marine fisheries.

It's a complicated mess, says Chestin at the WWF, with the result that no one agency takes ultimate responsibility for the environment.

"There is no systematic approach to environmental problems; there are no targets, like in the government's development programs," Chestin says. "There are targets on the economy, there are some social targets, but there are no targets on the environment, so it's just not in the focus of the governmental work."

Chestin says people remain in the government who believe that environmental restrictions pose a threat to economic development.

"That was the basic argument back in the year 2000, when the main environmental restrictions were lifted and that was the main reasoning: that environmental restrictions prevent the economy from growing," he says.

The Green Card

Critics, however, claim that the government seems to play the environmental card when it suits Russia's interests. The $20 billion Sakhalin-II gas project in Russia's Far East, for example, came under fire in October 2006 when the Natural Resources Ministry threatened to halt the undertaking unless Russian environmental laws were adhered to.

Russia has also been criticized for bulldozing environmental concerns as it engages in the massive transformation of the Black Sea resort of Sochi ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

The foreign companies involved in the massive Sakhalin-II project -- Britain's Royal Dutch Shell and Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi -- faced huge fines for their environmental failures relating to the construction of an 800-kilometer gas pipeline, a liquefied natural gas plant, two oil platforms, and an oil terminal.

Environmentalists supported the claims that damage was being done to the environment, but the move was also widely seen as a clear sign that Moscow wanted to take over the foreign-led venture.

Eventually, the three companies sold off about half of their joint stake in Sakhalin-II to Gazprom, Russia's state-run gas monopoly.

"Starting in 1997, ecologists began campaigning against this project," explains Greenpeace Russia's Tsyplyonkov. "But it was only in 2006, when Gazprom started to make noises about taking control of the field, that the government with great satisfaction sounded the environmental alarm."

He says that, speaking as an ecologist, "of course it's good that Shell got a rap on the knuckles." But on the other hand, he says, "I understand that in all likelihood, nothing will change. That's to say that now that Gazprom has become the sole facilitator of the project, the situation will remain the same as it was before."

Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, tells RFE/RL that it would be backward thinking to believe that the Russian government uses ecology to further its own ends.

"I don't think it's quite like that. But I think that unfortunately many of these [foreign oil] companies want to make out that it's like that," Mitvol says. "I can tell you that even now some people think of Russia as a country where bears walk along the streets and everyone plays the accordion. You only need to come to Moscow to see that this is not the case."

Nevertheless, the perception that Russia has much work to do in terms of environmentalism is pervasive.

Trashy Behavior Ending?

Nina Fedorushkina, a Moscow teacher, says everyday Russians could benefit from some environmental education as well.

"People just don't think about the environment, about their city," Fedorushkina says. "They think that when they throw away their rubbish, their domestic waste, their old household appliances, that after that it doesn't concern them. It isn't their problem any more. But in fact it is their problem, and their children's problem. Because they live in this city, and they are destroying the environment around Moscow."

Greenpeace Russia's Tsyplyonkov says the reasons behind such behavior lie deep:

"In my view, it's connected to the fact that for almost 70 years, Russians had it drilled into their heads that nothing depended on them -- that they were responsible for nothing at all," Tsyplyonkov says. "And that childish attitude was adhered to by generations. And the sort of attitude that people have today towards the environment, a completely utilitarian attitude, is the result of that."

But despite Russia's environmental tragedies big and small, there are rays of hope for a greener future.

"People do not necessarily always link their personal behavior with environmental problems, but I think it's progressively coming in," says the World Wildlife Fund's Chestin. "And one of the ways to engage the public is what we as WWF are trying to do, we are trying to demonstrate that our voice does matter, that we may change even big-level political decisions on the environment, providing there is public support."

And to back his argument, Chestin cites a major victory that took place last year, when public outrage over a proposal to build an oil pipeline close to Lake Baikal helped persuade the government to withdraw the plan.

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