Russian Ecological Bombs Going Off

Recent occurrence in Volokolamsk, when more than 90 people have been poisoned by the chemicals emitted by a local garbage dump is only a tip of the iceberg of Russia’s ecological problems.

It is widely believed that modern Russia is rather balanced in terms of ecology, at least when compared to industrial giants like China. Wide Siberian forests, low population-to-territory ratio and a scarce amount of post-soviet industrial complexes are not really a setup for ecological disaster, at least if you care for your nuclear power plants well. However, some factor indicate that Russia is suffering from less obvious ecological challenges, and some regions are more affected that the others.

For example, a recent tragedy in Volokolamsk, a small city in Moscow region, when more than 20 children and several dozen adults required medical attention after poisonous gas vas released from the local garbage dump, is an indicator of growing awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with the ecology. Some Russian cities are constantly popping up in ‘the most polluted’ rankings, namely Norilsk and Dzerzhinsk. However, in the recent years ecological situation was shifting rapidly across the big northern country, with some places becoming cleaner – and some way dirtier.

Typically, Norilsk, a mining and metallurgical enclave of a city deep into Siberian planes is offerd as an example of Russian pollution. A city so far to the north form any roads it can only be reached by a plane, is a home to the biggest metallurgical combine of Russia – Norilsk Nickel. Pollution from there acting mining and refining complexes used to be off the charts, so all citizens were obliged to spend several month a year on therapeutic vacations in the south to have any chance of living until old age. Nowadays, however, metallurgical corporation has most dangerous production lines closed down, and operations moved to other, less populated regions. Norilsk Nickel was rapidly increasing its environment protection budget to comply with new regulations and reduce emissions to bearable levels, and as the Year of Ecology in Russia is over, Norilsk has long lost its status as the most polluted city of Russia.

According to the most prominent Russian ecological watchdog, Green Patrol, Krasnoyarsky Kray, a region that Norilsk is part of, is better off environmentally than some of more central parts of Russia – namely, Chelyabinsk, Ekaterinburg and Moscow region. The same, however, cannot be said about the capital of the 2 million square kilometer regions, Krasnoyarsk. Last year alone, Krasnoyarsk, being a big Siberian industrial hub, has seen several ecological cataclysms, when smog was so thick it was advised to stay at home and filter all air. Locals call it ‘black sky warning’ – when you cannot see the sun for days and have to breath through a mask. Authorities, however, are unable to solve the problem of increased concentrations of dangerous emissions in their city, pointing out that local industries do not produce this much emissions. While the scientists and authorities are confused, the situation is deteriorating fast, risking to make Krasnoyarsk barely livable in a few years.

Other Russian industrial cities are suffering from similar problems as well: citizens of Chelyabinsk and Ekaterinburg, two biggest industrial hubs in Ural region, are constantly facing smog and pollution from the local chemical production. The problem persisted in these regions for decades, and recently seen more negative tendencies, with constant complains on increased pollution and even radiation levels.

Surprisingly to some, on the list of most polluted regions in Russia third place is taken by the Moscow region. While Moscow itself nowadays is a land of parks and civil spaces, devoid of industrial production, there region around it, which is a separate entity, is suffering from unprecedented level of pollution. Combined with Moscow, Moscow region (or Moskovskaya oblast) holds on different accounts, from 20 to 45 million people. While not exactly overpopulated, with authorities quickly tackling infrastructural problems and ever growing borders of the city, Moscow agglomeration produces an enormous amount of trash, which is an issue. Thing is, Russia traditionally just dumps the trash somewhere distant and forgets about it – why bother recycling when you have a lot of space. However, with ever growing population of Moscow and surrounding areas, concentration of dangerous trash on local garbage dumps became critical. According to recent WWF report, Moscow region hoards 1/5 of all trash produced in Russia, and 2/3 of trash dumped in the region is imported from the capital. As Volokolamsk tragedy shown, trash is becoming Russian’s capital main ecological challenge no one know how to beat yet. People of smaller towns from around Moscow are constantly complaining on the dropping quality of air, as megacity is spitting out tones of garbage to the nearby dumps. Cities like Volokolamsk, Klin and Solnechnogorsk are hugely affected, and locals are rising on strikes to force authorities to close the dumps down. The supposed short-term solution is to move the dumps away to other regions, does not cause optimism, especially in the citizens of said regions.

Currently, situation with ecology in both western and eastern Russia is alarming. Industrial cities suffer from emissions more than ever as Russia is increasing its production both for military purposes and replacing lost import over worsening international relations. Positive changes, like recycling and waste sorting legislations, are coming slower than expected, while people choke to hospital beds in the heart of Russia. It is certain that there are more ecological time bombs beneath the Russian industrial iceberg that will cause even more damage in the coming years. However, positive examples of environmental improvements, like Norilsk, where the air is cleaner now than at any moment in the recent 50 years, give hope of improving ecological situation before it goes down to the level of Chinese industrial cities.