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How Mega Polluters Make Moscow Stink

In Russia's capital, environmental protection is victim of manufacturers who don't want to reform and a government that won't challenge them. The result is there for all to see...and smell.

Moscow's St. Basil cathedral surrounded by incinerator smoke.
Moscow's St. Basil cathedral surrounded by incinerator smoke.
Vera Sitnina

MOSCOW — The Russian constitution actually guarantees the right to clean air. But as with other constitutional rights, exercising and protecting them isn't always simple.

According to data from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, more than two million Muscovites complained about a sulfurous smell Nov. 10. Some Russian cities have perennially unpleasant smells and no one complains, but that's not the case in Moscow. The smell of rotten eggs prompted widespread concern, but it seems that the government has yet to investigate the matter. Or if it has, it hasn't said so.

The incident highlights the significant failings of environmental protectionism in Russia, where legislation is behind the times and polluters go not only unchecked but also unmeasured.

In the case of last month's incident, it's not clear who's responsible for telling citizens what happened and why, so no one knows what, if any, measures have been taken to ensure it doesn't happen again. In Moscow, there are four different agencies responsible for environmental protection, and an additional city agency handles air quality. Each plays a different role in preventing and responding to instances of unacceptably high emissions.

Lack of coordination between the different agencies was painfully clear in November. Some said the smell was dangerous, while others said it was harmless.

"We have a lot of possible scenarios," Moscow’s Environmental Department chief said then. "Right now we're working with all the regions, trying to clear up the reasons for the malfunction. We should have answers by the end of the day."

Polluters running roughshod

It's been a month, and the only answer has been a lawsuit filed against the owners of the Moscow Refinery, charging them with air pollution. But experts are skeptical about the suit's chances because it's almost impossible to prove that the pollution emanated from the refinery, which doesn't have an emissions tracking system.

According to Environmental Resources Minister Sergei Donskoi, there are 87 major air polluters in Moscow, and of those only 57 have a system to continuously monitor their own emissions. "In addition, the largest polluter, the Moscow Refinery, is in no rush to install such a system," Donskoi says. Strangely, the oil refinery has the right to avoid self-tracking, at least for now. By law, polluters have until January 2018 to install an automatic, continuous emissions control system.

"Our biggest problem isn't that the law is bad but that there is no requirement that people actually obey the law," explains Aleksander Solovyanov, director of the Institute for Environmental and Ecological Economics and Policy at the School of Higher Economics. "Auditors have shown that the number of violators is growing every year, but no one has specific data. When we don't even know the size of the problem, it's impossible to find an appropriate solution."

Environmental protection has become the victim, caught between manufacturers who don't want to spend money on it and the government, which is not prepared to control the situation. "The Environmental Ministry is like a fox in the henhouse," says Ivan Blokov, director of Greenpeace Russia. "The agency has two diametrically opposed goals: achieving maximal economic benefit from natural resources, and protecting the environment. Aside from Russia, the only two other countries in the world where one agency has those two goals are Zimbabwe and Honduras."

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Smoggy skies at Gazprom headquarters — Photo: aalien

Environmentalists say the government isn't interested in giving equal weight to the interests of manufacturers and the country's environmental needs. "We're not even going back to the 20th century," says Evgenii Schwatz, director of environmental policy at the World Wildlife Fund. "We're back in the 19th century, when environmental destruction was considered an essential part of technical progress. It's cheaper for everyone to break environmental rules than it is to observe them. The Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs estimates that large businesses spend 2.5 billion euros per year on "unofficial" means of meeting environmental rules. As long as corruption in the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage continues, it's cheaper to pay a bribe than to update to better technology."

See no evil, hear no evil

He says the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs is not really interested in fighting corruption because that would require releasing pollution data to the public. "If that were to happen, the Union says that companies that have stocks traded on Western stock markets would see their stock prices drop. In reality, that means those companies didn't tell investors the truth during the IPO."

But Western experience has shown that improving environmental protections doesn't have to be expensive. "In most cases, Russian companies would need to make a large investment in modernization to achieve a real decrease in negative environmental impact," explains Maksim Komel, head of DuPont's "Responsible Business" department. "But international experience has also shown successful examples of businesses that have reached ambitious environmental goals through continual improvement, which means constant investment in small projects that pay off quickly."

Local government officials are likewise uninterested in environmental protection. "Unfortunately, governors are actually better off when there is more pollution in their region," Schwartz explains. "They will get more money to fix the pollution issue, but they can use that money for whatever they want."

As a result, since the times of Chernobyl the government has operated the same way: First, it tries to hide information about the disaster, then it forgets that it ever happened.

"The biggest problem is the lack of information," Blokov explains. "According to the Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring Agency, the situation has never been better. The Russian Statistics Service reports a favorable dynamic, based on the business industry's own reporting. But all of the information on individual company emissions are confidential. I personally lost a suit against the Moscow Refinery, where I was trying to get them to release emissions information."

Solovyanov says the the government is currently losing the fight with business. "Individual companies sometimes take steps, but in general business is in opposition," he says. "The government lacks the political will to stand up to them. Delaying resolution of environmental problems is not a wise position, because as the problems pile up it is never possible to resolve all of them."

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