Environmental groups in Russia have voiced alarm over what they see as attempts by the government to play down the seriousness of the country's environmental problems. They say that the state no longer gives priority to solving Russia's ever mounting ecological disasters. The countless oil spills in Arctic Russia and Siberia are just one example. (reference)
A group of men in white suits wade through a thick layer of oil. With the help of spades and water they are trying to remove the oil, but progress is slow and it seems a never-ending task. And in the forest tundra around Usinsk, a town situated near the Arctic Circle in Russia's northern Komi Republic, there are hundreds of similarly polluted areas.
In 1994, news broke out of a huge oil spill near Usinsk. Probably as much as one hundred thousand tonnes of oil leaked from a pipeline, polluting the tundra over a large area and threatening the ecosystem of the Pechora river basin. The oil companies concerned promised to clean up the oil. But instead, new spills have been reported each year, according to Greenpeace oil expert Martijn Lodewijkx. "People here said that about 40 percent of the oil spills of 1994 is still left, and we have seen those sites. Although the World Bank, which invested a lot of money in oil recovery of the 1994 spills, claimed that the situation improved dramatically, we still see huge areas that are covered with oil. And each year, according to figures from authorities here, 200 new oil spills occur. Of course they differ in size, but still 200 oil spills in such a small area is a huge amount.''
But the pollution is not confined to the oil fields of Usinsk. According to environmental groups, the situation in more remote areas like Western Siberia is even worse. For Russia, it is a chronic problem, caused by widespread neglect, lack of control and outdated equipment, says Martijn Lodewijkx. "The main cause of these oil spills are old and corroded pipelines, which are not maintained and not replaced in time. The day to day practice is that leaks occur and only when a pipeline breaks and spills oil, does part of the pipeline get replaced. In a normal situation, of course, you monitor the pipelines, you maintain them, and when they start to corrode you replace them immediately. But this is not the practice in Russia."
Large-scale oil pollution is just one of the countless environmental problems Russia is facing today, and the problems are bound to get worse. In Moscow, environmentalists called an emergency conference, to protest against the government's lack of will to tackle the problems. In May, President Putin abolished the State Committee for the Environment, the only remaining state structure that dealt exclusively with environmental problems. And that means that, for example, oil winning companies will now get a free hand, says Aleksei Yablokov, a former Kremlin advisor and one of Russia's leading environmentalists. "The exploitation of natural resources will be conducted without restriction. It is more wide exploitation for natural resources, for gas, for oil, for other mineral resources, for forest. Without environmental restriction which we have now.''
According to Yablokov and his colleagues, the Russian leadership thinks that only rich countries can afford to deal with environmental problems, and that Russia, for the time being, must focus on improving the economy. But this, they say, is a recipe for disaster, and sooner or later, Russia will be confronted with the results. The environmental movement now wants to hold a nation-wide referendum, to prove to the government that the Russian people are really worried about the state of the environment and demand immediate action. They want the State Committee for the Environment restored, and they want it to get more powers. Russia, they say, is running out of time.