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Russia: Environmental Woes Grow One Year After Watchdog Groups Dissolved

It has been just over a year since a presidential decree dissolved Russia's two main ecological monitoring groups -- the State Environment Committee and the State Forestry Committee. On the occasion of World Environment Day, Russian ecologists are saying the committees' replacement, the Natural Resources Ministry, has failed in its mandate to act as an independent monitor and block potentially harmful industrial projects.

Moscow, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On the occasion of World Environment Day, Russian ecologists have warned that last year's move to dissolve the country's two main environmental bodies has already cost Russia both ecologically and economically.

Last year in May a presidential decree came into effect that nullified the ministry-level state environmental and forestry committees and integrated them into the Natural Resources Ministry.

The measure was presented as an effort to streamline state structures and cut costs. But many environmentalists protested the move, saying it reflected the government's lack of interest in protecting the ecology more than any desire to conserve state funds. They also warned the Natural Resources Ministry was a poor substitute, with neither the means nor the objectivity to analyze industrial contracts and monitor some 300,000 businesses a year.

Today, Russian environmentalists say their fears were justified. They say that plummeting control standards will compromise even further Russia's already flawed environmental protection legislation.

Lev Fyodorov is a Russian environmental specialist on chemical weapons plants. Speaking at a news conference yesterday, he compared the dissolved committees to Russia's notoriously unpopular traffic police, saying that even systems that are flawed are better than no system at all:

"Some people think we had a good-for-nothing State Environmental Committee. It's true, it wasn't good for much. But say we tried to eliminate the traffic police. Who likes the traffic police? No one. But what would happen if you took them off the street? It's just not the right way of doing things. [And as a result,] environmental legislation can't work, because there isn't a single state organ left that can come to the defense of the average person, elk, or nature reserve."

Askhat Kalyumov, head of the Dront regional environmental protection organization in Nizhny Novgorod, gave a brief overview of the country's ecological situation since the Natural Resources Ministry took over:

"In reality, what we have now is [on the one hand] isolated pockets where people try to do something and where the state [environmental] control is maintained, and [on the other hand] the exploitation of natural resources just left to its own devices in a majority of regions. While before, Nizhny Novgorod managed to keep things in order, now theft in the logging industry has grown catastrophically, prompting even the tax police to speak up and say that it had become as big a criminal enterprise as bootlegging vodka."

Last year former Russian Ecological Affairs Minister Viktor Danilov-Danilyan called the decision to dissolve the environmental and forestry committees "a signal to thieves that they were now free to destroy and steal Russia's environmental wealth." He claimed that the move to transfer responsibility for environmental matters to the Natural Resources Ministry had been lobbied for by powerful oil and gas companies eager to lift state controls on their projects.

Many environmentalists agree with Danilov-Danilyan's claim. World Wildlife Fund representative Igor Chestin says caviar and fish poaching are also on the rise as state controls dwindle. The number of oil and gas leaks has also increased since last year, as the Natural Resources Ministry, citing lack of personnel, dropped some 40,000 companies from its yearly checklist.

The ministry admits that its environmental facilities have been stretched to maximum capacity. Viktor Kutsenko, the deputy head of the ministry's Ecological Control Department, says the number of inspectors was reduced by one-third in just a year. While inspectors were once responsible for no more than 50 projects, a single inspector may now have as many as 80 companies or contracts to oversee in a single year.

But Kutsenko claims the ministry is still managing to do its job, albeit with some compromises. He told RFE/RL it has reduced systematic annual control to cover only what he called "ecologically very dangerous enterprises," leaving those that are "less dangerous" to operate for over a year at a time without being monitored:

"We first and foremost try to control the [dangerous companies]. But of course we can't check all 250,000 to 300,000 companies every year. Neither the number of inspectors, nor the [financial] means, are sufficient for such controls."

Kutsenko did not specify which enterprises the ministry classifies as "very dangerous" or "less dangerous."

He added that the ministry was also in the process of handing over some control of environmental issues to local public organizations -- like Cossacks in Rostov and Volgograd -- to help alert the ministry to specific regional environmental hazards. Even with such measures, however, Kutsenko admitted that his department could not withstand any more cuts.

The Natural Resources Ministry has also been the object of criticism from environmentalists who say its other activities -- like issuing licenses for oil drilling and mining of gold and other precious materials -- make it a poor choice for the nation's ecological watchdog.

When the State Environmental Committee was still in operation, it often worked against the ministry to fight drilling licenses and other extraction processes that were profitable for the government but dangerous for the environment. Now that the two natural opponents are housed in a single ministry, critics say environmental issues will inevitably be given short shrift.

One example of this, says Greenpeace-Russia representative Ivan Blokov, is the ministry's recent issue of a license to mine gold on the territory of a nature preserve in the Komi Republic. The State Environmental Committee had previously blocked the project eight times.

Ministry official Kutsenko admits that conflicts of interest can arise in the ministry's new dual role, but declined to address the Komi case, saying he didn't know the precise details. However, he claims that in a similar case, when a Kalmyk company was looking to drill for oil in a protected area in the Astrakhan region, the ministry refused to issue the license.