Picket keeps heat on Russian polluters

Issue 

By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — After more than five weeks, a picket placed by environmentalists on one of Russia's worst industrial polluters came to an end on August 7. Defying harassment from local authorities, the protesters outside the metallurgical combine in the city of Cherepovets drew nation-wide attention to the failure of the government to enforce its own environmental protection laws.

Cherepovets, 400 kilometres north of Moscow, stands out as a disaster area even against the general background of environmental catastrophe in Russia. Every year the combine Severstal pours out around half a million tons of pollutants into the surrounding region — one and a half tons for each of the city's inhabitants. That is around ten times more than in Moscow which cannot be called environmentally clean either.

During bad periods in Cherepovets, cars drive about in daytime with their headlights switched on. The maximum allowable concentration of some substances in the air, soil and water is exceeded by tens, and sometimes hundreds, of times.

As the "reforms" in Russia have gone ahead, and the Severstal combine has been privatised, the situation in Cherepovets has grown worse. The incidence of various diseases among children in the city is from two to four times the Russian average, and is increasing. Adults are unhealthy as well. Between 1987 and 1991 the incidence of blood diseases tripled, while that of cancer and respiratory diseases doubled. The local authorities and the combine management simply ignore environmental protection laws. Even the monitoring of the environmental impact of production has virtually ceased.

According to studies, the metallurgical industry accounts for as much as a third of pollution in Russia. Much of the industry's equipment was installed in the 1950s and has not been renewed since. Under conditions of privatisation, when investment by the state has practically ceased and private capital is fleeing the country, there is little reason to hope for the appearance of newer and cleaner technology.

Anti-pollution devices were brought into operation at Severstal between 1969 and 1972, in the expectation that they would be replaced by new ones in 1980. Then the modernisation of the anti-pollution equipment was postponed, and finally, as privatisation got under way, the environmental protection programs were buried.

It is not surprising that Cherepovets has become an important arena for clashes between the green movement and the authorities. Last year members of the environmental group Cherepovets-94 mounted a series of actions designed to draw public attention to what was happening in the city. The most impressive of these included an occupation of the office of the director of the Severstal combine, and a hunger strike by activists who had climbed the huge chimney of the open-hearth plant.

However, neither the local authorities nor the combine management responded to these initiatives. It is true that the city soviet adopted a resolution demanding that the combine management take urgent measures, but in autumn last year local soviets throughout Russia were dissolved by a Yeltsin decree. Power in Cherepovets passed totally to the Severstal management. The city soviet resolution was annulled, and several other environmental programs were curtailed.

At the beginning of July greens from Russia and abroad gathered in Cherepovets to try to repeat their actions of 1993. But this time they were met by powerful police cordons and by the combine's paramilitary security guards.

When the first attempt was made to set up a picket, the security guards hauled the protesters into a minibus, beat them and handed them over to the police. The picketers were then released, but all night long the combine guards terrorised the protesters, smashed up their tent settlement and threatened them with arrest.

On July 5, protesters began to be arrested. Four of them were sentenced to five days in prison, and one was fined a hundred thousand roubles (about US$50). The basis of these sentences was "failure to obey police instructions", although the people harassing the protesters were not so much the police as the combine guards — the director's private troops.

The environmentalists' main demands included: fulfilling the requirements of environmental protection laws and of official decisions taken earlier; resettling people away from the zone immediately around the combine; and shifting the most dangerous types of production outside the city limits. The protesters also demanded that concrete plans for the reconstruction of the combine should be drawn up, and that an independent service should be established to deal with the question of work-related illnesses.

Because the question would inevitably be posed of who would pay for these measures and how, the environmentalists put forward the demand for an independent audit of the financial activity of the combine management. This, it can be assumed, is what aroused the particular anger of the Severstal directors.

The environmentalists stressed that they were not setting out to shut down production and cause job losses. On the contrary, they were fighting for the modernisation of the enterprise, and to encourage the setting up in Cherepovets of various structures that would be concerned with environmental issues and would also provide people with work. The union organisation at the combine supported these demands.

For the most part, Cherepovets residents remained only passive observers of the picket. This is not surprising. Almost half of the city's population is closely linked to the combine. In the present situation of crisis, workers are reluctant to enter into conflict with the management, fearing that they will lose their jobs.

Nevertheless, the picket prompted local sympathisers of the environmental cause to move into action. As the camp was being dismantled, organisers of the picket were reporting that a number of locally-based committees had been set up to make pressure on the combine management a year-round phenomenon.

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