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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Russia and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood and Living On Earth’s political observer Mark Hertsgaard discuss the latest on politics and the environment in Russia, home to some of the world's most polluted sites.


CURWOOD: On May twenty-third the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, announced the abolition of the Russian State Committee for Environmental Protection. That's the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency here in the United States. Mr. Putin proposes to put the responsibilities for that agency on the Natural Resources Agency, the group responsible for commercialization of natural resources. Joining me now is Living on Earth's political observer Mark Hertsgaard. Mark, I take it you think that Mr. Putin's decision is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

HERTSGAARD: Well, it's hard to avoid that conclusion, Steve. The State Committee for Environmental Protection is what its name suggests, the body that monitors environmental damages in Russia and regulates environmental procedures. And to abolish that agency is, as you say, it would be like not only abolishing EPA, but then giving EPA's functions over to, say, the Commerce Department. And the Commerce Department is an important department, but its function is to accelerate business development. And so these are two agencies that it's a conflict of interest, really, to give the monitoring functions over to the agency responsible for exploiting it.

CURWOOD: Now, what would be the impact on the environment of Russia from this bureaucratic change? I mean, the place is already in trouble. They've got a lot of pollution, and they're losing a lot of their natural resources.

HERTSGAARD: Yeah. I think it's almost impossible to overstate the catastrophic situation of the environment in Russia. This is a country where the rivers are so saturated with chemicals that one bursts into flame once a month. And so, what we're going to see is an intensification of a lot of the economic activities that are producing these problems. In fact, the very day after Mr. Putin's decision was announced, the Natural Resources Agency said that it was going to, quote, "simplify," unquote, the environmental rules governing industrial behavior in Russia. So, that's going to lead to more forests being cut down, more oil being drilled. Right now, Russia, for example, holds 22 percent of the world's forests. That's more than any other country. But they are planning to mount a major program to, quote, "fully realize the potential," unquote, of those forests by introducing a more attractive environment for private investment, with a $60 million loan from The World Bank. Mr. Putin has also named as his energy minister a relative unknown, Alexander Gavron, who is close to the oil monopoly, Kuloil.

CURWOOD: Now, what happens to environmental activists under Mr. Putin's government? Of course, environmental activism was key in Glasnost under Mr. Gorbachev in sort of a political opening. But Mr. Putin has a reputation as what? A high official in the KGB, the secret police, before he took this job. What do you think will happen now?

HERTSGAARD: By all appearances, Mr. Putin is bringing that same kind of paranoia from the KGB era into his new role as president. He has said to the Duma, the Russian parliament, that environmental groups provide what he calls convenient cover for foreign spies. And there has been a great increase of harassment, official harassment of environmental groups in Russia. In particular, Mr. Putin was describing the case of Alexander Nikitin, who is an environmental activist and journalist in Russia, who got some degree of international notoriety when he blew the whistle on the terrible nuclear pollution up in northwestern Russia off the Kola Peninsula, near the border with Finland and Norway. Nikitin made the mistake, in Putin's view, of working with the Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, publicizing the nuclear dangers up there. And they threw him in jail and put him on trial. Eventually Mr. Nikitin was exonerated because he had good legal representation and because they pointed out, look, we are only giving out information that's already publicly available. How can you possibly imprison a man for this? But you can be sure that if Mr. Putin gets his way, there's going to be a lot more cases like that.

CURWOOD: Mark, I have to ask you about this. Of course, Nikitin's case is about historic nuclear waste. But now I understand the Russian government is saying it would like to become the world's nuclear waste dump, import nuclear waste.

HERTSGAARD: Yes, this is in line with the same pro-business development mentality that Putin has announced here. They want to import nuclear waste, which is a very ironic thing for Russia, sadly ironic. Because Russia has more nuclear waste pollution than any other country in the world. Not just up on the Kola Peninsula but also in Chiliabins, where they made their nuclear weapons for 40 years. I've been there. Lake Karachai there has so much radiation from those 40 years of nuclear weapons production that if you stand by the shore of that lake for one hour, you will get a lethal dose of radiation. It has been called the single most polluted spot on Earth. They have no idea what to do with that waste. They don't have the money for it. And yet they want to import more. It's a catastrophic situation in Russia, and it's hard to imagine that it's not going to get much, much worse if this decision abolishing the environmental protection agency is allowed to stand.

CURWOOD: Mark Hertsgaard is Living on Earth's political observer. Thanks, Mark.

HERTSGAARD: Thank you, Steve.



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