Staunton, February 5 – With much fanfare, the Russian government has named 2017 to be the Year of Ecology; but it is already clear that for Moscow, the weekly Argumenty i fakty says, that “ecology begins and ends only where” it doesn’t interfere with the earnings of “friendly oligarchs” and that the central authorities have “declared war on the environment.”
The tragic misuse of the year became obvious last week at the first meeting in 25 years of the State Council on Ecology which devoted almost all of its attention to whether individual Russians were sorting their trash and almost none to issues of industrial pollution and its impact on the environment and heath (argumenti.ru/economics/n575/521040).
Since perestroika, the Russian authorities have basically forgotten about protecting the environment. Initially that was because the economic collapse and de-industrialization were effectively reducing the amount of pollution without the government having to take any specific action.
But with the rise of oil and gas production and the partial recovery of industry compared to the worst years of the 1990s, Russian firms are now dumping into the atmosphere and the water supply far more pollutants and often far more dangerous ones than was the case in Soviet times.
In 1990, the UN reported that Soviet industry was releasing 14 tons of CO2 per capita. By 2000, that number had fallen to eight. But in the last year for which data are available, it had risen to 13 tons and is now certainly higher, the weekly suggests.
The absence of government oversight and regulation has not only allowed oil and gas producers and other extractors of natural resources to dump poisonous chemicals at will – the only fines that can be imposed are too small to have an impact – but led to new but less high-profile threats.
These include massive and uncontained dumps and oversized pig farms that dump so much waste into the water and air of surrounding areas that many villages have simply had to be moved because of the threat to health. The authorities rather than the producers are at fault because the former simply follow the rules that Moscow does or doesn’t announce.
But the real threat is that since about 2005, experts say, the government has eliminated many of the rules that it did have and restricted requirements for environmental assessment of new and existing facilities thereby allowing operators to do whatever they want however harmful it may be.
And the Putin government took another step which has made things worse: It dropped the requirement that firms publish data on how much pollution they are releasing into the air and water. As a result, only they and “the highest officials” have any real idea about just how bad things are.
In many places, the population is having to cope with pollution levels dozens of times larger than even Moscow says are safe; and for the country as a whole, the weekly says, “almost ten million urban residents live where the permissible concentration of harmful substances in the air exceeds permissible levels by several times.”
The situation with regard to waterways and lakes is even worse. “If in the early 1980s, at the peak of Soviet industry, only 1t percent of water areas did not correspond to ecological norms, in recent years, 22 to 30 percent of them are now being filled up with harmful substances.” And the polluted rivers are draining into the seas, killing commercial fishing.
In particularly egregious cases, the leaders of the Russian government have personally intervened and promised changes. But after the media attention dissipates, they do little or nothing, especially if the firm belongs to a friend of the Kremlin. And new laws that have been proposed remove punishments in some areas even as they nominally impose them in other.