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Russia: Toxic Spill Near St. Petersburg Sparks Concerns

St. Petersburg, 19 February (RFE/RL) -- A toxic waste spill in Russia's northwest has led the international environmental group Greenpeace to warn of a looming environmental disaster. But a local environmental official has called the concerns exaggerated.

According to a recent Greenpeace report, the late December spill of about 400,000 cubic meters of toxic waste from a pulp-and-paper plant might end up being one of the worst chemical accidents anywhere in the world over the last decade.

Uncertainty over the effects of the spill is due to the fact that the heavy snows in the region are now retaining most of the pollutants. Its full effects are not expected to be felt until after the Spring thaw. The spill occured just outside the small city of Syastroi, which is several kilometers from Lake Ladoga and some 120 kms east of Saint Petersburg.

As the snows begin to melt, it is feared the toxic waste could flow into local rivers that empty into Lake Ladoga -- the largest lake in Europe and the main source of water for Saint Petersburg.

According to Greenpeace, studies done by a laboratory from Moscow University show that the amount of "DDT-like substances" in the black sludge surpasses admissible levels by 4,000 to 12,000 times. The sludge also contains high levels of heavy metals, such as copper, chromium and lead.

Greenpeace activist Alexei Kiselyov told RFE/RL that the heavy metals are highly toxic and capable of increasing the risk of cancer in humans as well as doing damage to the human immune system.

The accident took place on December 20 when an earthen wall holding an open-air waste pit at the Syasky Pulp and Paper Plant broke.

Government environmental authorities attribute the collapse of the wall to a radical temperature swing -- from minus 20 degrees Celsius to about 4 degrees, which they say weakened the structure. They say beavers and other animals had also inflicted considerable damage on the structure by boring holes through large parts of the earthen wall.

A factory representative has blamed financial problems as the reason for the poor maintenance of the wall.

The public prosecutor's office has not finished its criminal investigation into the incident. No one has been charged.

Last Friday, however, Russian government specialists called a press conference to counter Greenpeace's assertions about the severity of the spill's possible consequences.

Alexei Frolov -- chief inspector at Lenkomekologiya, the local government's environmental agency -- said an agency committee has found that the spill has n-o-t caused exceptional contamination of the soil.

Frolov said, quoting, "I don't want to say that this accident is insignificant, but I don't think it is one of the largest ecological disasters in recent years." He said the amount of pollution is small compared to Lake Ladoga's vast size. He added that "nature has its own way of self-cleaning."

Contrary to the Greenpeace report, he said studies done by government laboratories show that toxicity levels do not exceed the norm, except for the presence of chromium and copper.

Frolov also criticized the local media for sensationalizing the spill and exaggerating its severity.

He admitted, however, that when the snows melt, the toxic waste could enter the local water supply. He said government agencies will take necessary measures to contain the spill by Spring.

Greenpeace has proposed that a dam be built around the contaminated site. Government officials say such a dam would lead to the flooding of a nearby village.

Frolov could not say who will finance the cleanup of the waste -- the Leningrad region or the federal government. The Leningrad region is nearly bankrupt.

(Varoli is a St. Petersburg-based contributor to RFE/RL.)