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Russia makes progress cleaning up pollution, but hot spots remain

Eva ElkeSámi-Radio, Sweden
Photo: Eva Elke, Radio Sweden

For the first time, three so-called "hot spots" (extremely polluted areas) have been removed from a list of 42 hot spots in northwest Russia.

This conclusion was reached in November, when Sweden handed over the chairmanship of the Barents Euro-Arctic Council to Finland.

However, 39 extremely polluted areas remain on the list of hot spots, all in the Russian Barents region.

Sameradion visited two of them in the Kola Peninsula: Monchegorsk and Murmansk.

Some progress in Murmansk

Murmansk, a city of around 310,000 residents, is located on the Kola Bay, just a few miles south of the Barents Sea coast. Here, vast quantities of polluted waste water are released into the nearby Kola Bay. Seventy percent of wastewater is completely untreated when it is flushed into the bay.

The wastewater treatment system will be modernized in a project financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Nordic Environment Finance Corp. (NEFCO) and with Russian money from the local water treatment plant, Vodokanal.

Two water-treatment districts will be joined together and new water mains will replace the old ones. The project will be completed within five years, at which point 25 percent less polluted waste water will be released into the fjord.

The figure will be down to zero by 2015 and by then, the third water treatment district will also be able to purify waste water before it is released into the fjord, as ruled by a local court in late 2011.

Residents turn to spring water

Many residents of Murmansk do what Dr. Alexander Larionov does. On weekends, he drives to a spring located 40-50 kilometers outside of the city and fills several water jugs with fresh, clean spring water.

"We boil the water from the faucet in the kitchen at home before drinking it, because it doesn't look clean," he says, filling his water jug with spring water from a faucet at the spring. The family uses the spring water primarily for tea.

But many modernizations have recently been made in Murmansk, according to Mikhail Egorin, head of the local water company Vodokanal.

The water company's environmental director, Irina Verestehagina, says it has been good for the Russians to receive a push in the right direction from their Swedish partners. The water purification problem will be completely solved just in time for the city's 100-year anniversary in 2016.

"Hopefully by then, the Kola Bay will be less polluted," says Mikhail Egorin.

Monchegorsk: 'The Metallurgy City'

Monchegorsk is located several miles south of Murmansk in the middle of the Kola Peninsula. Emissions from mines and smelting plants pollute the city's air and water, but visitors are welcomed by a sign reading "Monchegorsk - Metallurgy City". It is beautifully situated in a long valley surrounded by mountains.

An enormous factory area in the outskirts of the city releases massive amounts of lead, heavy metals and sulfur dioxide into the air. Bellona, the Norwegian environmental organization, estimates the sulfur dioxide emissions to be five times greater than the sulfur dioxide emissions of all of Norway's industries combined.

The population has long been plagued with lung and skin diseases believed to be caused by the emissions. Factory workers are diagnosed with cancer three times more often than nonfactory workers and have a lower average length of life.

Coping with pollution

In a school, we meet Tatyana Egoshina, a teacher who moved to Monchegorsk nine years ago.

"When I came here, I just saw mountains and lakes, no trees," she says.The forest around Monchegorsk has been dead for a long time due to the emissions, but new trees were planted a few years ago. Egoshina believes the environment has improved, but says that one day last fall, the entire city was engulfed in a potent yellow fog.

"We didn't know if we should dare go outside or if we should leave the city," she says. She sought further information from the factory, which is owned by Norilsk Nikel, one of the world's largest nickel makers. Production was halted on that particular day because the thick fog trapped the emissions low to the ground.

A 17-year-old, Marscha Kitaeva, invites us for tea at home in her kitchen. She knows the water is polluted, but says it is fine to drink as long as it is run through the water purifier first. A pitcher with a filter sits on the counter, and she demonstrates how the family uses it to purify water.

But Kitaeva wants to move to Moscow. Her future holds a career in television, and better health.

"Maybe it would be good for me to move away from here, from the pollution," she says.

'More talk than action'

In Murmansk, Anna Kireeva, who is Russian, works at the office of Bellona, the Norwegian environmental organization. Bellona is closely following the development on the Kola Peninsula, which borders both Norway and Finland. She worries about the hazards the emissions pose to people and the environment.

"We can clearly see how the emissions destroy the natural surroundings, how the grass and trees look," she says.

Kireeva says that although the Russian political agenda has indeed addressed the environmental issues in recent years, there has still been more talk than action. Bellona is demanding an intensification of Russian environmental legislation, that more rigorous limits are imposed on Norilsk Nikels' emissions and that environmental fines are raised.

Pressure on the company to reduce its negative environmental impact has increased in Russia compared with the Soviet era, according to Anna Kireeva. She says Norilsk Nikel is devoting substantial resources to shedding the "environmental villain" label.

"They are well aware of the international interest and that the share could benefit from a more environmentally friendly profile," she says. "Today it's harder than ever for large quantities of sulfur dioxide emissions to go unnoticed."

She describes an incident that took place a few years ago in which the people of the city of Nikel called Bellona because the rain was causing holes in umbrellas.

"We tried to interest the press in the story, but their interest was minimal," she says. "We turned to the Norwegian media instead, and they wrote about the major scandal, revealing the story to the Russian population as well. Several weeks later at a seminar in Kirkenes, the mining companies on the Kola Peninsula apologized for the incident."

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.