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No forests, no Lake Baikal, no separate waste collection. How the war in Ukraine is killing Russia's natural environment

Ekaterina Maximova

With the outbreak of war in Ukraine and the imposition of Western sanctions Russia went for de-ecologization, the process of eliminating environmental norms and laws, abandoning environmentalism in the economy. More than a dozen initiatives, which eased control over environmental laws, appeared after February 24. That's how the authorities are trying to help enterprises facing sanctions. The Insider explored why the attempt to save the economy at the expense of ecology will turn into an environmental disaster and how else the sanctions will affect Russia’s nature.

ALL CARDS
  • Refuse-derived fuel

  • No sorting or recycling

  • Waste incineration will become even more dangerous

  • Abandoned oil wells

  • Logging without obligations

  • No eco-friendliness

  • Baikal under threat

  • No public expert review

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Refuse-derived fuel

In late April, United Russia deputies Bekhan Agaev and Alexander Kogan submitted to the Duma a draft law “On Production and Consumption Wastes” that equates utilization of garbage with manufacturing fuel, compost or other fertilizers from it. According to the explanatory note the bill shall fulfill the President`s stated objective to reduce landfill disposal 50% by 2030. The Russians are going to pay for this - the cost of production of fuel, which will then be burned again, is supposed to be included in the bill for the services of regional operators.

The draft law provoked an outcry among almost all ecological communities. The Russian branch of Greenpeace started collecting signatures for a petition to repeal the initiative. Environmentalists believe that it is dangerous for two reasons. Firstly, it means the development of waste incineration, which will lead to harmful emissions of mercury, lead, cadmium and dioxins. Russia does not systematically collect hazardous waste such as batteries, thermometers, electronic waste, and toxic PVC plastic. All of them end up in the general waste stream, and it is practically impossible to get them out.

In other words, the composition of RDF (Refuse-derived fuel) is likely to be very harmful. And its use is even more toxic than the classic incineration of waste in refuse incineration plants. According to an Italian study, combustion of RDF fuel produces nine times more mercury, three times more cadmium and 203 times more lead - and this in a country that has established separate waste collection. In Russian reality, the concentration of harmful substances would be ten times higher.

Secondly, the project will completely eliminate separate waste collection. Businesses will find it unprofitable to sort waste and manufacture plastic from plastic. Greenpeace notes that businesses will be receiving money, pressing and crushing wastes, and then sending them for incineration:

“It's technologically easier and cheaper than investing in separate collection and recycling. The law will allow the authorities and regional operators to report to their superiors about recycling without actually doing it.”

No sorting or recycling

Experts warn that waste-sorting stations all over Russia may stop working because they are operating on foreign equipment. The recycling industry is 70% dependent on foreign components and technology. Russian equipment parts also contain a large number of imported components. Those are mostly high-tech elements that do not have a Russian analogue. With the beginning of the war imports of foreign components stopped. At the same time, waste recyclers conceal the problems associated with anti-Russian sanctions in order to comply with the national Ecology project. By 2030, 100% of solid municipal wastes is supposed to be sent for sorting, today according to some sources this figure does not exceed 7%.

Waste sorting stations all over Russia may stop working, because they rely on foreign equipment

The country’s current two-container collection system assumes that all waste must go through sorting stations. Last year 1 billion rubles was allocated for the installation of 63,000 containers for separate waste collection. But when the sorting equipment starts breaking down, the system will stop working. Anna Garkusha, an expert in the “Separate collection” movement, doubts that the containers will be able to work until there is an alternative:

“Sorting lines need bearings, belts, optical separators and other components. It is unclear whether the existing conveyors will last until the necessary domestically produced parts appear.”

Textile processing plants may also close. After the sanctions they were deprived of 85% of raw materials. Around 73% of them were imported from countries, where there is a practice of collecting old clothes. After the war started those raw materials stopped coming. And with the departure of the H&M chain, whose stores also collected old clothes, the enterprises were deprived of another 12% of raw materials. There were still textiles from Russian collectors, but they accounted for only 15% of the total volume. That is not enough for the functioning of the enterprises. If they close, there will be no place to recycle old clothes, and they will go to landfills or RIPs.

Waste incineration will become even more dangerous

Sanctions have affected not only sorting and recycling, but also incineration. The fate of incinerators under construction and the maintenance of existing ones is in question. RT-Invest, a subsidiary of Rostekh, is building them in Russia. The biggest difficulties are with the plant under construction near Kazan. The project was developed on the basis of Japanese-Swiss technology to be supplied by Hitachi Zosen Inova. Nikolai Atlasov, a Kazan City Council deputy, is not sure the plant will ever start operating:

“Rostekh's project is based on western technology, access to which is blocked due to sanctions, and the equipment that was already paid for and was expected to arrive in February has never arrived.

The Prime Minister of the Republic of Tatarstan, Alexei Pesoshin, said that the authorities were looking for a way out of the situation. It's not hard to guess what the solution will be. If they are unable to come to an agreement, then it’s highly likely there will be no trace of the Japanese-Swiss technology left.

The lack of foreign-made components means the impossibility of replacing the old equipment at the already operating plants in a timely manner. This, together with replacement of foreign systems with domestic ones, may make purification of emissions at RIPs less efficient.

Replacing foreign systems with domestic ones could make emission treatment at RIPs less efficient

“RT-Invest is building five waste-to-energy plants in the Moscow region and Tatarstan, and is trying to approve a project for 25 RIPs across the country. If all of these plants are to operate using domestic technology, there will be more dioxins hazardous to humans in the air.

Abandoned oil wells

After a month and a half of negotiations, Western countries have agreed to a partial embargo on Russian oil imports. It concerns first of all tanker supplies and to a lesser extent pipeline fuel. Despite the bold statements of Russian officials about finding new markets and customers, it is obvious that under the embargo Russia will have to cut its oil production.

Knowing the peculiarities of Russian subsoil management, eco-activists fear that now some of the recently developed wells will have to be abandoned. It is possible to temporarily suspend the operation of wells without conservation of the production site for 6 months. That period can extended only if measures for safe use of subsoil are taken.

“Most likely, they will be abandoned without carrying out the entire process of conservation, which costs about half of the cost of creating the well,” the coordinator of the We Live Here! environmental movement Dmitry Kochanov told The Insider.

Decommissioning a well costs about $150,000 and restarting production costs up to $500,000. Restoration can take several years, explains Irina Kezik, an expert of the intersectoral analytical center of the Union of Oil and Gas Producers of Russia. Moreover, there is a danger that as a result of decreasing formation pressure oil will go “lower down”, its volume will decline and the development will no longer be economically feasible. Abandoned and non-conserved production sites accumulate environmental harm. They may also become explosive, Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko warns.

As a result of a decrease in the formation pressure oil may go “lower down”, its volume will decline and the development will no longer be economically feasible

According to Alexander Novak, Deputy Prime Minister, production in Russia could decrease by 5-8% by the end of the year. But many experts are sure that the country will have to reduce production by 30%. Under such conditions wells will be abandoned on a massive scale, while conservation may seem pointless: there will be no lifting of sanctions and, consequently, increase in production in Russia any time soon, so new wells are unlikely to be needed in the foreseeable future.

Logging without obligations

The Ministry of Defense wants to acquire the right to cut timber on forest fund lands without any obligations, permits and without the need to warn local authorities by the end of 2022. The Ministry prepared a draft Government decree and it’s unlikely to be rejected. The amendments are to be included into the decree “On Peculiarities of Granting Permits in the Russian Federation in 2022”.

The draft decree gives the military the right to cut as much timber as they want if the timber they get is claimed to be necessary “for defense needs”. Regional authorities will have to be notified about logging operations after the fact - within 30 days after the cutting. Today, regional and local authorities are in charge of coordinating requests for logging. The process takes 10 to 15 days.

Large quantities of logs and planks are required by the Russian military in Ukraine; they are used to build trenches, dugouts, strongholds and other fortifications. They try to cut the timber closer to the Ukrainian border to make it easier to deliver.

Logs and planks are needed by the Russian military in Ukraine for the construction of trenches, dugouts, strongholds and other fortifications

The Insider has learned that volunteers are already doing this in the Belgorod region. They cut trees without permits or documents. Then they send the timber to Russian soldiers in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. The longer the fighting goes on, the more wood is needed.

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The Government decree will not only result in thousands of hectares of forest being cut down, it will also open the door for “black loggers,” who will rely on the order of the Ministry of Defense. It will be impossible to check the legality of their actions: according to the draft decree, not even an electronic document is required.

No eco-friendliness

To save the automobile industry the government resolved to let the car plants manufacture cars that produce three times as much carbon monoxide as it was allowed by the “Euro-5” standard. The corresponding decree has already been signed and will be valid until February 1, 2023, unless extended. It allows Russian automobile plants to produce cars of any ecological class - even Euro 0. Most European countries adopted a similar standard at the end of the 1980s. The need arose amid the suspension of supplies of electronic control units from abroad. The automotive plants have already assembled several thousands of such cars.

In cities, cars account for 83% of pollution, trucks for 12%, special vehicles for 2.8% and buses only for 2.2%. Source: “Comparative Analysis of the Toxicity of Automobile Exhaust Gases and Ways to Reduce It”, N. Karimkhojaev, M. Z. Numonov, 2020
In cities, cars account for 83% of pollution, trucks for 12%, special vehicles for 2.8% and buses only for 2.2%. Source: “Comparative Analysis of the Toxicity of Automobile Exhaust Gases and Ways to Reduce It”, N. Karimkhojaev, M. Z. Numonov, 2020

“Euro-0” is not really a correct term. The designation itself appeared after the adoption of the next environmental class, “Euro-1”, in 1992. And the document refers to the Russian “environmental class 0” with similar threshold values. As compared to “Euro-5”, allowable content of carbon oxide in exhaust gas increased from 1 to 2.76 g/km, emission of hydrocarbons from 0.1 to 0.24 g/km and nitrogen oxides from 0.06 to 0.18 g/km. The standard does not regulate emissions of particulate matter and smoke. It applies to gasoline engines.

The return of environmental friendliness of exhaust gases to the levels of thirty years ago means a disaster first of all for the inhabitants of megacities. In large cities, motor transport accounts for 30-50% of air pollution, and its influence is even greater in the center. Consequently, concentrations of all major pollutants will triple, ecologists warn. This is fraught with the growth of oncological diseases. Road dust contains benz(a)pyrene - a carcinogen that enters the atmosphere during the combustion of motor fuel, according to a new study by Russian scientists, published in the Environmental Geochemistry and Health journal. If the shortage of electronics drags on and environmental standards are completely abolished, the return of more polluting carbureted engines cannot be ruled out.

In connection with this decision, as well as with the other de-ecologizing initiatives, in March the authorities postponed the federal project “Clean Air” for two years. Its goal was to reduce air emissions by 20% compared to the 2018 levels in Russia’s 12 most polluted cities. Now enterprises have to achieve the declared goals by the end of 2024.

Baikal under threat

Among the series of anti-environmental projects, the initiative that activists have already dubbed “Baikal's biosphere killer” deserves special mention. It’s the draft amendment to order No. 83 of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Russia dated February 21, 2022. The authorities are going to lower the requirements for the composition of wastewater, which is discharged into Baikal and the rivers that feed it.

If the draft is adopted, water containing organochlorines, dioxins and DDT (insecticide used against mosquitoes, cotton, soybeans, and peanuts pests) can be legally discharged into the lake. Many of those substances are toxic, carcinogenic, and can accumulate in the body, causing functional disorders and death. The amount of adsorbable organic halogen compounds will be increased by a factor of 200, the amount of suspended solids 1.6 times, iron 10 times, chromium 1.3 times, and mercury 13 times.

The draft order is ingenious in its deceptiveness. The specified concentrations of pollutants are really small, and at first glance can hardly cause serious damage to nature. The problem is that equipment capable of purifying wastewater to such a degree is simply not available at the local plants, according to the Greenpeace website. Therefore, the waste may be discharged into Lake Baikal on a massive scale and without compliance.

Waste may be discharged into Lake Baikal on a massive scale and without compliance

Lake Baikal`s pollution has already affected its flora and fauna. In places of localized pollution (mostly those where tourists are based) spirogyra algae have spread, Lyubov Alikina, public activist and chairman of the territorial public self-government Rubin, told The Insider. Increased concentrations of toxic substances may destroy endemic species, i.e. species that occur nowhere else, such as the Baikal seal. Immunity of Baikal inhabitants is not adapted to fighting pollution.

The Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences has also criticized the darft. Scientists believe that the proposal is not scientifically grounded and directly contradicts the Federal Law “On the Protection of Lake Baikal”. The experts suggested that discharges of the most hazardous substances into the lake be banned. Besides, environmentalists are afraid that the crisis and the sanctions will cause growth of inner tourism. In an effort to develop the corresponding infrastructure, the authorities will further weaken the environmental control around Baikal and the unique ecosystems will disappear under the influx of Russian and Chinese tourists.

No public expert review

Authorities also decided to cancel the public environmental expert review (PEER). Individuals and public organizations will be prohibited from conducting it, and so will be foreign agents. Only regional authorities will be able to initiate it. Interestingly enough, the draft law was introduced in the Duma by Alexander Kogan, the same United Russia member who had previously proposed to equate making fuel from refuse to garbage recycling.

In most cases, the PEER is conducted by independent environmental organizations, when individuals or environmentalists have doubts about the quality of the surveys performed by a developer, construction company or the government. Independent experts may assess the environmental impact of a construction project. If the draft is approved, such an opportunity will disappear. Neither individuals, nor environmentalists will be allowed to review project documentation. And regional authorities will not be able to properly conduct the PEER, because they do not have the necessary resources, competence, and, in many cases, they are interested in the outcome.

Regional authorities will not be able to properly conduct the PEER, because they do not have the necessary resources or competence

The draft law also lowers the requirements for conducting state expert reviews. First of all, it reduces the time allowed for conducting a state expert review, which cannot but affect its quality. Secondly, it eliminates the need for the authorities to conduct a second review in the event of any changes to the project documentation. Environmentalists fear that the environmental impact assessment of every future incinerator, landfill or highway will only be done on paper.

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