Mammoth tasks confront Soviet greens

Wednesday, July 10, 1991

Interview by Renfrey Clarke

A chemistry graduate, Paul Soler-Sala has spent the past 10 months in the Soviet Union as a representative of the US environmental organisation Ecologia. During much of this time, he has travelled through the USSR meeting with environmentalists from the green movement and from government agencies. In the first section of a two-part interview, he tells Green Left Moscow correspondent Renfrey Clarke about the tasks confronting Soviet environmental activists.

How would you sum up the key challenges faced by the environmental movement?

It's hard to know where to start. There's everything here — air, water, soil pollution, contamination of foodstuffs.

People haven't felt responsible for any damage that they might cause the environment. There's still a lack of responsibility built into this society. That's the case with people in the ministries, workers in factories and local citizens.

It's an interesting fact that the environmental movement in the Soviet Union was quite developed in the 1930s. What happened then, basically, was that Stalin put an end to it. Now there are people who want to regenerate that.

Education right now is key. What the Soviet Union needs is a lot of people, scientists especially, who are active in the environmental field.

In the West we've heard, for example, about the drying up of the Aral Sea. Are there other disasters of this magnitude?

The catastrophe with the Aral Sea, which is dying because the water has been taken off for irrigation, is quite well known outside. But as a rule, the environmental disasters here don't have so specific a character.

It's better to talk of general disaster areas. For example, there's the area of Bashkiria in the southern Urals, where you have people living right next to huge industrial complexes, and working there in inhumane conditions. Death rates are high — you have a lot of workers dying at 45.

There are also nuclear testing zones that are badly contaminated with radioactivity. In Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan, the links with cancer are obvious.

Abuse of the environment is so widespread. One example is town

called Dolgoprudny, just north of Moscow. There's a factory there that makes photographic film, and a number of other factories as well. There are several ponds, and a little stream that empties into the Yauza River and then into the Moscow River.

Some researchers I know went out one day to look at these ponds. They found multicoloured sludge and bits of film — you could tell it was factory waste. The levels of phenols were a thousand times the permissible level. Most foreigners have never heard of Dolgoprudny, and even most people in the town don't know that the ponds are extremely contaminated. That example is typical.

What's been the impact on the environment of particular industries — for example, the mining industry?

There are all the problems with mining that we have in the United States: the run-off, the depletion of resources, health hazards for the workers — most of the workers don't want to use the health protection provided, which is a very big problem.

I had a look at some coal mines in the Kuzbass, in Western Siberia. It was strip-mining. In that case the restoration program was quite good — they actually did restore the land, putting the soil back on and planting trees. But I've heard stories that this is done in very few places, that pits are often left open.

The main concerns environmentalists have with coal mining here are with the conditions for the workers, and with the fact that it's a very dirty source of energy, especially when you get coal with a sulphur content of 3 or 4%. Environmentalists would like to replace coal with other energy sources like natural gas or alternative energies, because coal is one of the worst polluters.

What about uranium mining and the atomic power industry?

There's been a big slowdown since Chernobyl. Construction of a lot of plants has been stopped. All the same, there are still some very crude attitudes. A friend told me about a group of Soviet representatives who attended a conference in California recently on nuclear power problems in China, the USSR and the United States. These representatives were claiming that the Soviet Union was moving in the right direction, that it was creating safe nuclear power and so on. They seemed completely oblivious to what's been happening.

In Krasnoyarsk in Western Siberia there was a plan to build a storage and treatment facility to receive nuclear waste not only from around the Soviet Union but also from Europe. That'd be very profitable for the Soviet Union — they'd get hard currency for it. But first, of course, you'd have to ship the stuff halfway across the USSR.

There have been some very serious nuclear accidents. Near Chelyabinsk in the southern Urals, there have been two major accidents, one in the late 1950s and another in the early 1960s. There are still problems there because of storage tanks that are out in the open, and radioactive material is leaching into the rivers.

Overall, the nuclear industry here seems to be in decline. People are realising what a threat it is.

What about forestry? From what I understand, the attitude tends to be that the forests are endless.

Actually, that's not far wrong. The Krasnoyarsk district alone is the size of France, and it's nearly all forest, mostly untouched. But the forestry practices still present a very real threat. For example, they try to float timber down the Siberian rivers, and they run into all sorts of problems. They wood stays along the edge of the rivers and doesn't even get used. Phenols leach out of the wood, and they're a big problem in a lot of rivers.

The Siberian forests probably play as large a role in the global climate as the Brazilian forests.

What's been the outcome of the battles over plans to divert Siberian rivers for irrigation?

In the past, some of the ministries that work with water supplies were very aggressively developing canal systems, completely disrupting the hydrological regime of the rivers. They not only did a pretty good job on the Volga, but they also wanted to divert some of the Siberian rivers, building huge canals to irrigate the southern parts of the country, and also to fill in the Aral Sea again.

A river's a sensitive thing, and when you turn it around, the consequences can be very serious. There's been scientific literature around for a good while, outlining the dangers of building these canals. It wasn't just the fact that the projects were ridiculously expensive — the ecological threat was definitely there.

Why were they so anxious to build these canals? These ministries are huge, and they need big expensive projects. Building those canals made the ministries richer, it let them hire more people, it let the people at the top of the ministries give themselves bigger salaries. It was like private industry in the United States that looks for government contracts.

In 1985 and 1986 the student movement and non-governmental organisations did a lot of work trying to get these projects stopped. They managed to get the plans for the Siberian rivers

dropped. That fight was important for starting the whole ecological movement here.