Staunton, November 30 – Many people in many countries are angry about this or that aspect of their lives, but they do not become a political force until they decide that the solution to their problems requires either a change in the policies of the government or, more radically, a change in the regime itself.
That may now be happening with environmentalism in the Russian Federation. Alexey Yablokov, a biologist who founded Russia’s Greenpeace organization already in Soviet times, says that the situation in the environment in the Russian capital is so dire that it can be saved only by a change in the political regime.
He describes five threats to the health and welfare of Muscovites, stressing that some of these are well understood by the population while others are not and that some of the steps the powers that be have taken in recent years, steps that he calls “the de-ecologization of the state” are making things worse.
The first threat, Yablokov says, are chemical emissions. When there was an accident at the Moscow Oil Processing Plant on November 11–12, two million Muscovites called the city government’s hotline to complain about the smell. And it is likely that as many as half of all Muscovites in fact suffered from that problem.
But despite the alarms raised, this problem was not as serious as many other chemical emissions into the air and water. This incident caused only a few tens of thousands to suffer from breathing problems, and “only several hundred” residents landed in hospitals as a result. Many other accidents and even regular emissions have caused far more problems.
The second environmental threat, he continues, is the release of radioactivity. “Moscow is the only capital in the world on the territory of which there are nuclear reactors,” with at least 11 research reactors in the city or in the surrounding oblast. Most have been stopped, but their radioactive cores have not been removed and remain “extremely dangerous.”
Government monitoring, as the recent oil plant accident showed, “is not particularly effective,” Yablokov says. And while simultaneous accidents in all the radioactive facilities is small, even one can be a challenge, especially since, as in one recent case, officials kept fire fighters from entering a reactor building for four hours out of security concerns.
The third environmental threat comes from automobiles. “100 percent of the residents of Moscow and St. Petersburg breathe dirty air,” and for 95 percent of this, “automobiles are guilty.” Their emissions poison people both when they breathe in the particles emitted and even when they don’t: some of the poisons enter through the skin.
And those who think that the situation is better in the winter are wrong, Yablokov says. The cars stir up chemicals put down on the streets and thus spread these poisons into the air and thus into the lungs of Muscovites.
The fourth threat is from dirty water. The water processing facilities in the two Russian capitals work well, but the water has to pass through pipelines which are aging and which often follow sewage lines that leak. As a result, officials acknowledge that “three to four percent” of the water Muscovites use has more contamination than standards require.
The actual percentage is almost certainly larger because in some parts of the Russian capital, the water is contaminated by rare earth minerals that can make people sick immediately or over time, Yablokov says.
And the fifth threat involves the destruction of the city’s green spaces, an action that is directly traceable to the commitment of the Sobyanin administration to build more churches and restaurants in the name of creating “recreational” opportunities for the population. But this is “dangerous for city residents,” the ecologist says.
“Americans have calculated that one large tree in a city preserves the life of one resident,” Yablokov notes, and in recent years, the city authorities have cut down “tens of thousands of trees” and thus put at risk the same number of Russians living there.
He also points out that drivers sitting in long lines “receive a larger dose of harmful substances than do pedestrians,” noting that Moscow has fewer cars per capita than do Paris or New York but longer lines. Bike riders also breathe in this contaminated air. Thus, promoting bike riding as a way of improving health, as officials now do, may have just the opposite effect.