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Friday, July 11, 2008

Russia's Toxic Rivers

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Igor Shopen jabbed a branch into the edge of the Volga River, a stone's throw from the Saratov Oil Refinery's rust-covered storage tanks. In a matter of seconds, black crude billowed from the riverbed like ink from a squid.

In the air, the scent of oil hung thick and heavy. Along the shore, piles of picnic trash dotted the beach. Tossing the stick onto the brown-black sand, Shopen's voice quavered as he sized up the fate of a river long revered as a gateway into the soul of Russia.

"What we face here now is the question of ecological collapse—the question of life or death of the environment here," said Shopen, a local environmentalist who as a boy spent his summers swimming in the Volga. "I am proud of this great river and I want it to remain great after I'm gone."

The river that Russians call Mother Volga has been the country's lifeblood for centuries, as beloved here as the Mississippi is in the U.S.

Today, however, segments of the Volga serve as little more than ashcans for riverside factories that are pushing the river toward the brink of environmental ruin. Russian scientists estimate that a third of the country's wastewater gets dumped into the Volga basin, and much of that water is poorly filtered.

"In recent years, industrial activity has been on the rise in Russia, and that's very dangerous because the wastewater-cleaning facilities at industrial plants date back to Soviet times," said Galina Chernogayeva, a scientist at the Institute for Global Climate and Ecology, which studies water pollution in Russia. "They need modernization."

Legacy of ruin

Historically, Russia has never been a good guardian of its environment.

During the Cold War, large-scale radiation discharges at weapons manufacturing facilities in central Russia and Siberia were hushed up for years by Soviet authorities. Cancer rates have risen dramatically in villages along the Techa River in the Ural Mountains, not far from a plutonium plant that for decades secretly dumped more than 20 billion gallons of radioactive waste into the river. Along the Barents Sea and the country's eastern Pacific coast, submarines containing nuclear fuel rust in ports, awaiting dismantling.

Under former President Vladimir Putin, the country rebounded on the back of booming oil prices but failed to steer any of that newfound wealth toward safeguarding the environment. Now, authorities say, Russia cannot afford to ignore the health of its waterways much longer.

Putin's handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, said that if the country continues to neglect its environment, "in 10, 20 or 30 years we may find ourselves in a situation when part of the country's territory will be unfit for living."

"Environmental protection," Medvedev told law students in St. Petersburg in June, "is a question of national security."

Some of Russia's most iconic bodies of water are also its most endangered. For 40 years, a paper mill in east Siberia has been dumping chlorine and other contaminants into Lake Baikal, the world's largest and deepest freshwater lake. Siberia's Ob and Amur Rivers are also heavily polluted, scientists say.

Filth and hope

But it's the Volga that may be the country's most abused waterway.

Europe's longest river, the 2,300-mile Volga begins in the Valdai Hills north of Moscow and meanders through the dense birch woodlands of central Russia before emptying into the Caspian Sea. During the Soviet era, the country's military-industrial complex freely polluted the Volga for decades while it rushed to meet Moscow's production quotas. In the name of industrialization, the river was dammed in places, creating large reservoirs that slowed water flow and allowed pollutants to accumulate.

The Volga can still be saved, environmentalists say, but time is running out. A pollution study released by Chernogayeva's institute last year found that most of the water in the Volga basin could be characterized either as "contaminated" or "dirty," a designation based on an analysis of the type and severity of pollution found in samples.

At the river's delta near the city of Astrakhan, pollution from nearby factories and farms is causing algae blooms that rob fish stocks and the region's wetland wildlife of oxygen, "dramatically affecting the ecosystem of the river there," said Valentina Bryzgalo, chief researcher at the Hydrochemical Institute in Rostov-on-Don.

'The refinery is so old'

Tributaries that feed into the Volga aggravate the river's plight. The city of Chapayevsk on the Chapayevka River, a Volga tributary, is so polluted with dioxins and other contaminants that the mayor has proposed shutting down the city and resettling its 70,000 inhabitants.

In Saratov, a refinery has been polluting the Volga since it began operation in 1920, said Shopen, who heads the Saratov branch of Green Patrol, a Russian environmentalist group. Collection ponds just 50 yards from the river bank are coal-black with oil contamination.

"The problem is that the refinery is so old, and its condition is far from perfect," Shopen says. "So some of the oil just seeps into the ground or collects in these ponds, and groundwater underneath carries the oil into the river."

At a refinery outfall that empties into the river, the water is black and viscous. A small plastic barrier installed by the refinery's owner, TNK-BP, helps contain the oil-contaminated water, but during spring rains, it overflows and streams toward the river, Shopen says. TNK-BP placed the boom there three weeks ago at Green Patrol's urging; before, only a swatch of fabric was used to contain the oil.

Locals say the segment of the Volga that flows past Saratov used to teem with fish. Today, says Viktor Matarkulov, a 58-year-old railway worker, "there's very little fish, and the fish we catch smells of oil. If we go on abusing the Volga like this, there won't be any fish left at all."

On a recent cloudless afternoon, Alexei Nefyodov, 17, and Dmitry Lesin, 15, did backflips off of a pile of old tires stacked in the water. When they were done, they said they would do what they always do—head home and shower off the film of oil.

"All of the oil here worries us," shrugged Nefyodov as he toweled himself off. "But we've got no other place to swim."

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