By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — You've got a mountain of highly toxic industrial waste, which can't be reprocessed at a profit. It can be kept from contaminating the environment only if you're prepared to foot a heavy bill. What do you do?
Easy: you send it to Russia! In fact, you can even make money on the deal, selling the waste to people there who will reprocess it using cheap, environmentally dangerous methods. If the purchasers break a string of environmental protection laws in order to import the residues, and if lethal heavy metals finish up dumped in gullies in the southern Urals, that's not your problem.
This, at least, seems to have been the reasoning of the Australian mining company Pasminco, which in August 1993 shipped 11 container-loads of residues to St Petersburg. The 214-tonne "test consignment" was purchased by the Russian firm Molibden, which sent it first to Stavropol in southern Russia for the extraction of cobalt, then to North Ossetia and the southern Urals for the further extraction of cadmium, lead and zinc.
In importing the residues, Molibden appears to have broken Russian law by failing to secure the agreement of a series of environmental and health protection agencies. The firm's actions caused a local scandal during 1994 in Stavropol, where the district health inspectorate tried to have the processing halted as a danger to the public.
Now the threat has multiplied, as plans have been drawn up to turn the "test consignment" into a regular traffic supplying a full-scale industry. On February 20, after months of collecting evidence, the environmental organisation Greenpeace sounded the alarm.
Greenpeace revealed that Molibden and the Stavropol processor, the firm Luminofor, had obtained permission from the Economy Ministry to import a further 1500 tonnes of Australian wastes. This would be enough for a year's continuous processing. Once again, the environmental organisation charged, the materials were to be imported without obtaining the necessary licence from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources.
"To find a Western firm capable of processing such residues would be virtually impossible", a Greenpeace press release stated. "This is an extremely costly procedure, almost impossible to carry out in environmentally safe fashion."
The Luminofor plant in Stavropol is just about the last place where such an operation should be attempted. "This enterprise is already on the list of the most serious environmental polluters in Russia", Greenpeace noted. As a result of Luminofor's activity, cadmium levels in ground water near the plant reportedly exceed the maximum permitted levels by 41,200 times.
According to Greenpeace campaign coordinator Oganes Targulyan, the imports of industrial residues are being carried out in violation of the Basle Convention, which Russia has ratified. "In sending its wastes to Russia, Australia has also breached the convention", Targulyan argued.
It is quite clear that even after being processed at various points on Russian territory, the residues sent in 1993 still contained high concentrations of heavy metals. The question of where the wastes finished up is therefore of no small interest. The copies of supply contracts and other documents released to journalists by Greenpeace reveal nothing on this point. Past practice by Russian importers of industrial wastes suggests that the "test consignment" very likely finished up dumped on some out-of-the-way site, with little or no effort made to prevent toxic substances leaching into waterways.
As of February 23, it appeared that the renewed scandal had forced chemical plants in the Stavropol district to abandon plans to reprocess further shipments of Australian toxic wastes. But it is hard to believe that Molibden, a firm set up by the former Chief Directorate of the Soviet Ministry of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy, will not try to find other processors in Russia for imported wastes from Australia and elsewhere.
The only way to stop toxic waste imports doing further damage to the Russian environment, Greenpeace spokespeople insist, is to ban the trade entirely.