Russia: A Corrupt and Opaque Environmental Record

Russia ranks 28th on the green index, but it ' s too good to be true.

The Russian government takes environmental violations seriously—sometimes. Just ask Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia's Federal Environmental Monitoring Service. Last year Mitvol compiled a dossier on alleged environmental violations by an oil-and gas-drilling consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell on the Pacific island of Sakhalin. An indignant Kremlin promptly suspended Shell's operations. As soon as Shell and its partners agreed to sell a controlling stake in Sakhalin to state-owned Gazprom last year, Moscow lost interest. By contrast, Mitvol's report stating that the Kirovo-Chepetsky Chemical Plant had spilled radioactive waste into Prosnoye Lake in Kirov was ignored. "When I am needed to come down hard on Shell's ecological crimes, then I can be active," says Mitvol. "But if I try to talk about Krasny Bor outside of St. Petersburg, the biggest chemical dump in Eastern Europe, or about lakes of spilled oil all over Siberia, the ministry shuts me up."

Mitvol is experiencing the growing cult of secrecy around environmental data, particularly when it embarrasses the Kremlin. "Ecology in Russia has become a state secret; it's almost impossible to access information on radiation dumps, nuclear power stations and retired nuclear submarines," says former Naval Capt. Aleksandr Nikitin, a researcher for the Norwegian-funded ecological group Bellona.

It's no wonder that Russia scores implausibly well on Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index. On many criteria, from air particles to industrial pollution and water quality, data provided by Russia suggest almost Scandinavian levels of purity. For instance, the country scores a 99 on ground-level ozone, a gas produced by coal plants and other heavy industry, and 96 on a measure of air pollution—to the disbelief of anyone who's ever opened a window in any city in the former Soviet Union. One reason for the disconnect is the very vastness of Russia, which includes pristine wilderness that dilutes the effect of heavy industry. Russia, alone among big nations, may also be cooking the numbers. Indeed, officialdom now seems to spend more time cracking down on ecologists than tackling ecological problems.

Russia's Ministry of Emergency Situations recently withheld information that Bellona requested for a study of sunken submarine reactors in the Arctic Ocean, says Nikitin. And members of the European Parliament were denied entry to a nuclear-waste storage site at Andreyeva Bay on the White Sea, even though the European Union had paid to unload the waste. "Only North Korea and Iran are more secretive," Nikitin says.

Since 2000, environmental violations, such as toxic waste released from oil and gas plants, have grown from 14,500 to 39,500, according to Greenpeace. In the same period, Russia slashed the State Committee for the Environment's 5,000 inspectors to 800. "There is no agency left in the country to provide effective ecological inspections," says Sergey Tsyplenkov, the director of Greenpeace Russia.

Mikhail Krendlin, Greenpeace's man in Sochi, a city in south Russia that is due to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, says he ran afoul of the authorities when he filed a report last November to the International Olympic Committee about the negative impact of Olympic sites—especially the bobsled tracks—planned to run through a nature reserve. Within days, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov, who headed the Sochi 2014 campaign, sent a letter (which NEWSWEEK has seen) to the FSB and Interior and Foreign ministries asking them to gather information on possible violations by Greenpeace in Sochi. Soon after, Tsyplenkov received phone calls from the Federal Registration Chamber threatening to close his NGO, which led to months of inspections and bureaucratic problems (though Greenpeace continues to work in Russia). The FSB declined to comment on Krendlin's allegations. In a February meeting with Greenpeace Russia representatives, Zhukov explained that the NGO "had misunderstood the situation" in Sochi. Regarding potential damage from the Olympic sites, Yuriy Trutnev, minister of Natural Resources and Ecology, says: "There will be no real damage [to the environment], but there may be damage to the image of our country." As long as it is image, rather than substance, which is the state's priority, Russia's vast spaces will just keep getting dirtier.