Global Economics

Russia's Baltic Pollution Problem


Ineffective, if not negligent, regulation by St. Petersburg's government is allowing the flow of industrial waste into the sea to surge

Fishing in water so polluted that it comes in several colors does not much worry Alexander. He has a favorite spot, on the Vyborgskaya embankment not far from his home in northern St. Petersburg. For him it's the perfect escape from a job where he scrapes out a living sorting fruits and vegetables in a warehouse. He reckons the industrial waste and pollutants than end up in the Neva River can't be all that dangerous.

"If the fish were poisonous, I would've died a long time ago," he said.

Every day in St. Petersburg, 3 million tons of waste water flow into the Neva, which cuts through the city. Two-thirds of it is untreated, according to Dmitry Artamonov, head of the St. Petersburg branch of Greenpeace.

He concedes that most city residents, like Alexander, either don't care or don't know about the state of the water. But he warns that the river contains dyes, oils, and a variety of chemicals, illegally pumped in from industrial plants.

"Even if the water looks clean, with no obvious oily patches, don't trust your eyes. They just don't give you the whole picture, he said. "The Neva is fast-flowing, so if you throw something into it at night it'll be far away by morning.

OLD CITY AND THE SEA

Perhaps, even, somewhere in the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city, is the biggest single polluter of the sea, one of the most contaminated in the world, according to ecologists. And many tons of untreated sewage flow straight into the Baltic from the Neva.

According to St. Petersburg City Hall's annual report for 2007, 40 percent of the sewage and industrial waste originating in the city the highest level in the past 15 years went directly into the Neva and the Gulf of Finland, owing to a shortage of waste treatment facilities. And that figure does not include illegal discharges.

Only three years ago city authorities said just 25 percent of untreated waste was being pumped into the river.

"The likeliest reason behind growing volumes of industrial waste is corruption," Artamonov said. "Since 2000, the amount of unauthorized industrial discharge has grown despite the fact that this is illegal and could lead to the temporary suspension of all operations by the company responsible, until they stop or install a proper filtration system."

And, he suggests, fines for illegal discharges are having little or no impact on the problem.

"The companies prefer to pay fines of anything between 20,000 and 40,000 rubles ($850 to $1,700) rather than install much more expensive filtration systems," said Vera Izmailova, spokeswoman for Vodokanal, the St. Petersburg governments water-treatment monopoly. "Fines need to be increased drastically and economic sanctions must be used against companies that breach environmental standards."

In January, Vodokanal was fined 40,000 rubles by the local branch of State Environmental Protection Watch, a regulatory body, after it discovered illegal discharges of uncertain origins in the Okhta River. The agency was called in after Vodokanal had been unable to pinpoint the source of the discharges.

But the watchdog body is regarded by environmental campaigners as virtually toothless. The head of its St Petersburg branch, Sergei Yermolov, said his office has only four inspectors and no legal right to initiate an inspection.

"An inspection can only be prompted by an official report about a discharge. We're not allowed to just show up at a factory and demand that they install a filtration system," Yermolov said.

Fish from the River Neva are regularly sold by private vendors in city markets or in the streets. However Alexei Kiselyov, head of Greenpeace's toxicology program, said its activists have regularly found seriously contaminated fish in the river. He argues that if such fish were detected in European Union countries, they would be condemned as unfit for human consumption.

Greenpeace sends specimens to its own laboratories in Exeter, England, for testing. Kiselyov said those tests have uncovered high concentrations of poisons such arsenic, lead, and copper.

For several years, local environmentalists have asked the St. Petersburg governor, Valentina Matviyenko, to go with them on one of their water patrols, but they say she has yet to accept such an invitation.

Matviyenko has never publicly conceded that the scale of the problem is as great as the environmentalists claim. Indeed, her speeches on the subject since she took the office in 2004 have been optimistic.

"St. Petersburg strives to reach European standards in all spheres of life, and with regard to ecology we are very close to our goal," Matviyenko told reporters in 2007 during the inauguration of an industrial waste incinerator. "We perceive the Baltic Sea as a territory of friendship, and the city will do everything possible to make its waters clean."

But environmental groups have long criticized the St. Petersburg government for failing to build more water treatment facilities or an additional sewage collector and for not putting enough pressure on industrial companies to install filtration systems.

'END OF THE ROAD'

Nationwide, ecology does not appear to be a priority, either. Soon after President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the Russian government closed the Environment Ministry and transferred its responsibilities to the new Natural Resources Ministry, which is also in charge of exploiting the country's natural resources.

Ecologists from countries around the Baltic Sea express frustration at what they see as the lack of measures in Russia to safeguard the environment.

St. Petersburg's City Hall's program for environmental safety in 2008-2012, which classified the Neva as "moderately polluted," contains no budget for a new water treatment facility.

Greenpeace says its research suggests concentrations of copper in the city's main waterway are 73 times, and manganese 26 times, the levels considered safe by the Russian government.

"Public awareness about environmental issues remains low, and the officials downplay levels of contaminants in waterways," said Olga Tsepilova, a member of environmental faction with the liberal party Yabloko.

Some environmentalists admit their current strategies may have failed. They say a truly international effort is required to rescue the Baltic Sea, which plagued by toxic algae that grow uncontrollably on organic nutrient cocktails. Many species in the sea's ecosystem face extinction because of the high contamination. The concentration of dioxin in the sea's herring in the coastal areas is so high that pregnant women in Sweden are advised not to eat it.

"Many ecologists say they feel like they have come to the end of the road, and all existing tools have been used," says Lars Kristofferson, secretary general of the Swedish branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "We need to develop a new strategy and look for new tools, otherwise all our efforts will have been wasted."

In 2004, all the countries with Baltic coasts except Russia signed a petition to the International Maritime Organization to grant the Baltic Sea the official status of "particularly sensitive sea area," or PSSA, to aid them in joining forces to tackle environmental threats in the region. That designation was granted in April 2004. But despite continued requests, Russia still has not applied for PSSA status for its waters.

Russia's reluctance to sign the petition appears to stem from official fears that regulation will hamper economic development.

The Leningrad district's new oil terminals, increasing oil traffic, and frequent oil spills further pollute the almost enclosed waters of the Baltic Sea. The amount of oil transported through the Baltic has doubled since 1997 and is expected to increase to up to 160 million metric tons per year in 2010. Greenpeace says substandard shipping practices have significantly increased the risks of severe oil accidents. Since 1980 each year on average has seen one major accident.

"Oil traffic has been increasing enormously in the Gulf of Finland," said Anita Makinen, an environmentalist with the Finnish branch of the WWF. "The Russians are enlarging their existing oil terminals and building new ones."

Not only has the number of tankers grown but their size has also increased, she added. "At the same time, cruises between Helsinki and Stockholm have increased tremendously, and this route is crossing the main routes of vessels transporting hazardous substances."

Meanwhile, the U.N. Environment Program warns that pollution by hazardous substances like pesticides, heavy metals and industrial waste is threatening the sea and its habitats. Furthermore, being crisscrossed by some of the busiest shipping routes in the world, the Baltic remains under permanent threat from maritime pollution incidents, the UNEP warns.

Russia is the only country on the Baltic Sea coast that is not a member of the European Union, which makes a difference in the country's approach to its environmental responsibilities.

"The EU countries share the same legislation, and naturally, they are all accountable to it," Kristofferson said. "With regard to Russia, we don't really have a lever of influence, apart from appealing to the government's good will. After all, every country should be interested in having a healthy environment for its citizens. We recognize that the Russian economy is very dependent on oil, but we are extremely concerned."

Speaking at a March forum in Helsinki on the state of the Baltic Sea, Finnish President Tarja Halonen stressed that most of the environmental problems in the sea cannot be resolved without Russia's involvement. "Political commitment at the highest level is essential to ensure the future of the sea," Halonen said.

So far, such entreaties have not worked. A tougher approach, such as sanctions, is also likely to fail, according to Yevgeny Nadorshin, a senior economic analyst with the Trust Investment Bank in Moscow.

"Western Europe's increasing dependence on Russian gas and oil would make any such move to force Russia to play ball on the Baltic fraught with danger, said. Although Russia itself is dependent on Western European investment and technology, the country is strong enough to avoid compromising decisions. Besides, many experts in Russia take those critical voices from the Baltic states with a pinch of salt. All that is likely to be seen as a campaign fuelled by the envy of Russias brilliant economic prospects in the Baltics that does not have much to do with the environment."


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