It is no secret that Russia faces any number of ecological threats; that addressing those threats is not a priority for the leaders of its regions; and that even if it were, the cuts to the 2015 budget necessitated by the effects of low oil prices and Western sanctions have limited even further the funds available -- and thus, by extension, the authorities' ability to take effective measures.
The level of vulnerability and risk is exemplified by the situation in the Republic of North Ossetia, which has registered a series of ecological alerts over the past four months. On at least three occasions in May, the Terek River that flows through the republic's capital, Vladikavkaz, then eastwards through Chechnya, was colored purple. Specialists established that this was caused by the discharge of manganese from a nearby factory, which produces electrical components for cars and tractors. The level of manganese in the river reportedly exceeded that which is permitted by a factor of 462. The company responsible has been fined 325,000 rubles ($4,770).
WATCH: The Terek Rivers Turns Purple
Then, in June, 472 people were hospitalized in the western district of Alagir (total population: 20,270) and a further 722 required medical treatment for poisoning after consuming mains drinking water subsequently found to be contaminated with Norovirus and the Shigella bacteria, which cause dysentery.
Some 98 Alagir residents similarly contracted a gastro-intestinal infection from contaminated water supplies in September 2014. The local official who oversaw what subsequently proved to be substandard repairs to the local water main believed to have caused that outbreak is to stand trial shortly.
Following the Alagir incident, mass testing was started across North Ossetia to determine whether water from other sources is similarly contaminated. Parallel investigations undertaken by members of North Ossetia's Public Chamber and the regional branch of the All-Russian Nature Conservation Society established that the overwhelming majority of the republic's 127 sources of communal drinking water have no protection from contamination.
A far more serious long-term ecological threat to both North Ossetia and neighboring republics is the Elektrotsink metallurgical plant in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital. It is the second-largest producer of zinc in Russia (87,217 tons in 2009) and the largest producer of lead; it also produces cadmium, copper-based alloys, and sulfuric acid. As of 2013, Elektrotsink's workforce numbered 2,600, making it the largest employer in a republic where unemployment stands at 8.6 percent.
The then moribund enterprise was acquired in 2003 by the Ural Mining and Metallurgical Company, which made the minimum investment in replacing obsolescent equipment prior to restarting large-scale production. But as output picked up, so too did toxic emissions of gases and heavy metals. According to Feliks Tsokov, a former federal Investigative Committee staffer turned ecological activist, those emissions exceed permitted norms by a factor of up to 500. At the same time, Tsokov estimates that 4 million tons of toxic waste have accumulated on the territory surrounding the plant.
In October 2009 alone, there were five discharges into the atmosphere by Elektrotsink of huge and concentrated amounts of sulfur dioxide or other chemicals. Those incidents served as the catalyst for a series of pickets and demonstrations to demand the closure of the plant that continue to this day. Elektrotsink's general director Igor Khodyko nonetheless affirmed at a conference in June 2013 that the plant complies with existing environmental legislation.
High Incidence Of Disease
Senior officials also categorically deny that Elektrotsink constitutes an environmental or health hazard. Former republic head Taymuraz Mamsurov went on record as saying it is more dangerous to inhale the smoke from a barbecue than the emissions from Elektrotsink.
Visiting the plant in November 2014, the presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Sergei Melikov, said regular monitoring of the levels of lead and zinc at schools and kindergartens in Vladikavkaz have failed to identify "any negative factors affecting [people's] health." He dismissed the ongoing protests calling for the closure of the plant as "a totally destructive policy."
Residents of Vladikavkaz and ecological activists alike nonetheless continue to maintain that the toxic emissions from Elektrotsink and other industrial enterprises have had a catastrophic effect on the health of the population, not just of North Ossetia, but of neighboring Ingushetia and Chechnya. They say North Ossetia has registered a huge increase in cancer, including in newborns, as well as diabetes, kidney stones and gallstones, and congenital defects.
Physician and blogger Atsamaz Khadikov for his part says that the incidence of disease caused by environmental pollution in North Ossetia is the highest in Russia.