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Analysis & Opinion
29.12.08 A Sad Time For Ecology
By Sergei Balashov

The global economic crisis has fully settled in Russia, which now cannot help but recognize that the economy is in trouble. It also finds a curious way of crawling into almost every issue on the country’s agenda. Ecology is no exception. As government and businesses seek to cut costs, it is becoming more and more difficult to make caring for the environment a top consideration. Environmentalists say the crisis will have a wide-ranging impact, from compromising environmental protection against industrial waste to a decline of the quality of clothing and food.

“The period after the crisis ten years ago was a sad time for ecology,” said Andrei Nagibin, chairman of Green Patrol, a public organization for environmental protection. The speedy economic recovery that Russia underwent after the 1998 crisis has had a negative impact on the environment that has been suffering from a lack of concern on the part of the authorities and businesses. Industrial waste has been allowed to damage the environment, particularly the rivers. The oil and gas boom was as harmful as anything. Last year, the Russian federal Environmental Inspection Agency estimated the direct damage inflicted by the Sakhalin-II project alone at over $500 million, including losses from the 46 tons of fish that died as a result of the implementation of the project.

The East Siberia – Pacific Ocean pipeline that was supposed to ship Russian oil to China caused uproar among environmentalists, particularly Greenpeace, as they thought it was running way too close to Lake Baikal. The campaign resulted in a direct intervention from then President Vladimir Putin, who two years ago demanded the operator, Transneft, lay the pipeline at least 40 kilometers further north than planned. This highly publicized event turned a corner in the state’s and corporations’ previously careless attitude to the environment.

“This was the starting point of the positive development of our ecology; the attention paid to the environment became constant,” said Nagibin. He lamented, however, that Russia lost a lot at the institutional level: the State Committee for Ecology and the Federal Forestry Service ceased to exist, it has been made legal to ship radioactive waste into the country for processing, and fees for polluting the environment have been revoked. “That means our industries have been polluting freely for two years,” added Nagibin.

Nonetheless, new ecology councils were being established in various governing bodies and corporations, and the environmental issue had been making its way to the top of the agenda.

But the financial crisis made an almost immediate impact upon its arrival in early autumn. To highlight the trend, Roman Pukalov director of Green Patrol’s environment protection programs, cited the example of TNK-BP and its Uvekskaya petroleum installation in Saratov, which has been heavily damaging the Volga River with oil and oil product waste in violation of any environmental protection standards. In 2008, when the economy was still on the rise, the company put forward a remediation plan for the adjacent territories with an announced annual spending of a little over a million dollars.

“All they did as of November 2008 were the sea boom systems to localize the possible oil spills from tankers. They spent less than $300,000 and don’t plan on spending any more. That’s exactly what we fear, as the profits from oil fall the environment will be put on the backburner, people are concerned with wages and businesses with profits,” said Pukalov.

The problem, however, expands way beyond corporate neglect for the green cause. Inevitably, as incomes dwindle and people have less money to spend on gifts and other necessities, they will be forced to turn to lower quality items and drive up imports from countries like China and Turkey, which have gained notoriety for their hazardous clothing and toys, once amply available in marketplaces.

“This threat will be the same as we had back in the 90s,” said Pukalov. Even before the crisis, Green Patrol conducted a study of Chinese toys and found a third of them failed to meet sanitary requirements. Food, he says, might also develop into a problem as Russians will be likely to switch back to chicken imported from the United States, which has been under fire for years for allegedly poor quality.

“We’re forecasting a negative development there,” said Pukalov.

The proposed methods of fighting the possible side effects of the economic crisis and the shifts of demand in the market come down to installing customs barriers and banning certain goods from being sold in public marketplaces, but rather in stores. Yet, whether such measures will be practical remains to be seen. And the reason for that might be the same: the distraction of public attention away from the environment and toward fixing the economy and maintaining the crucial export industries, primarily oil and gas. At the same time, cheaper imports could be the only tool for closing the shortage in the market if domestic producers are forced out of business by decreased demand.

It appears that the environment will once again be a priority when other issues are taken care of and there is less to worry about; when there is more money to put aside to ensure that water is clean and the existing demand for various goods is met. As crisis expectations tend to be short or mid-term, environmental spending will be spared until the economic forecast becomes clearer.

“Businesses have been aggressive, we had a phase of active economic growth and the economy was the number one priority while the citizens’ rights to a positive environment were neglected; due to the crisis we’re seeing further deterioration,” said Vyacheslav Fedorov, head of the environmental rating of Russian regions project.
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