SEPTEMBER 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 9
U S S R I N C R I S I S
Enironmental Devastation in the Soviet Union
by James Ridgeway
Moscow - A survey of the Soviet environmental situation reveals a country in desperate straits.
According to a mapping scheme developed by Soviet scientists, 16 percent of their country, containing a quarter of its population, is at environmental risk. Various data paint a somber picture: 40 percent of the Soviet people live in areas where air pollutants are three to four times the maximum allowable levels. Sanitation is primitive. Where it exists, for example in Moscow, it doesn't work properly. Half of all industrial waste water in the capital city goes untreated. In Leningrad, nearly half of the children have intestinal disorders caused by drinking contaminated water from what was once Europe's most pristine supply. An alternative source of clean water is now threatened by a joint Soviet-American tourist venture. Beaches along the Black, Azoz and Baltic seas are frequently closed because of pollution, and numerous rivers in the European part of the Soviet Union are off bounds because they are so filthy.
Since Stalin's time, the Soviet economy has been geared to establishing heavy industry, with little or no attention paid to environmental impacts. Most recently, the government has turned its attention to Siberia and the Soviet Far East. It has undertaken a colossal construction program, building hundreds of new cities, throwing oil and gas pipelines across the landscape (including the world's longest transcontinental gas pipeline, 2,700 miles from the far north to Western Europe) and constructing huge chemical complexes. While the Soviets have succeeded in building an industrial society, the country's economic malaise leaves it resembling an ungainly Third World nation, increasingly dependent on the sale of natural resources.
Most timbering of the forests is done with clear-cuts, with as much as 70 percent of the cut timber going to waste. According to one estimate, acid rain is killing more than 500,000 hectares of forests in northwestern Siberia.
An official Soviet report on the "State of the Environment" in 1988 pointed to metal poisoning in various cities: cadmium in Odessa, manganese in Dnepropetrovsk and Rostov. "The highest degree of atmospheric pollution in 1988 was observed in 68 cities," mainly in the Ukraine, in Kuzbass, the Caucasus, east Kazakhstan and near the Ural Mountains. "The most polluted reservoirs in the U.S.S.R. are along the rivers and lakes on Kola Peninsula and along the Bug, Dnyestr, Danube and Don rivers."
There is no such thing as an environmental impact statement in the Soviet Union, although there are informal efforts to establish something like one. And no one can be certain who is responsible for most of the polluting because so much of it is associated with secret military enterprises.
Soviet agriculture is especially vulnerable, with much of the topsoil eroding. Farmlands have been heavily doused with pesticides and fertilizers. In the western Ukraine, thousands of square miles of farm land remain contaminated from the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
The most celebrated case of pollution involves the inland Aral Sea (see "The Death of the Aral Sea"). Once the world's fourth largest inland body of saltwater, the Aral Sea has lost two- thirds of its original size since 1970 and is expected to vanish by the year 2000 because massive Stalinist irrigation projects have diverted the waters of rivers that once flowed into the Sea into enormous cotton spreads.
The Aral Sea fishing fleets are a thing of the past, with rotting hulls of the boats thrown up on a shrunken shore of the sea which looks increasingly like a brackish mud puddle. The salt and silt from the dried up Sea blows across the cotton fields, requiring an immense effort to keep them in production.
The cotton plan was riddled with official corruption. State planners fiddled with the books to make it appear as if yields were increasing, thus providing the rationale for the government to keep pumping money into the project. Party officials, including Leonid Brezhnev's son-in-law, then stole the money.
Coal and natural gas: export substitution
While Europe has substantial coal deposits, it historically had no natural gas and had to import oil. After World War II, natural gas was discovered in the Netherlands, and then oil and gas were found in the North Sea. Eventually, with the introduction of tankers in which the gas was frozen and shipped from North Africa, more gas was brought to the continent. Natural gas made possible the revolution in the European economy, offering for the first time a clean, efficient fuel. And as the gas market grew, the Soviet Union came to play an integral role in the market. Probably more than any other single economic factor, natural gas tied the Soviet Union to Western Europe. And with mixed blessings.
As part of an immense effort to industrialize Siberia and the Far East, the Soviet Union has been developing large-scale deposits of hydrocarbons, most importantly natural gas. The overall plan has been to develop gas, and send it westward through new, often hastily and poorly constructed pipelines that provide gas to European Russia and its Warsaw Pact allies. This frees up other gas produced in the European part of the Soviet Union along with its imports from Iran for export to West Germany, Finland, Italy, Greece and elsewhere in Western Europe. As the Soviet economy worsened, this gas became ever more important as a source of hard currency. And as the need intensified for hard currency to buy imports to supplement declining agricultural production, gas that ought to have gone to Eastern Europe was instead sold to Western Europe, leaving Eastern Europe shackled to lignite coal as its only energy source. Burning coal resulted in more and more pollution, which, because of the prevailing winds, blew back and forth across Eastern Europe, into Scandinavia, and, most significantly, into the European parts of the Soviet Union--the Ukraine, the Baltic states and Byelorussia. If the export of energy helped pave the way for Western European prosperity, it also cost the Soviet Union heavily in environmental pollution and disease. In the Soviet Union itself, 25 percent of the atmospheric pollution comes from electric power plants. Now there is talk of increasing electricity sales to Europe, which, if created by coal, in all probability means aggravating the acid rain that already inundates part of the Soviet Union.
Taming the polluting state
Nikolai Vorontsov, chairman of Goskompriroda, the state committee for the protection of nature, described the uphill fight to get any sort of a grip on environmental pollution in a recent interview with the Institute for Soviet-American Relations. Goskompriroda, which was only started in 1988, employs just 450 people, compared with 600 in West Germany. The committee has only two computers, and a budget of 20 million rubles (less than $4 million) compared to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget of $5 billion. For the whole of the Soviet Union, which comprises one-sixth of the land mass of the planet, expenditures for environmental protection, besides those of Goskompriroda, amount to a mere 10 million rubles.
The amount of resources allocated to environmental causes may seem ludicrous, but money is not the primary issue. The big question in Moscow is whether the state, until now heedlessly pushing giant Stalinist development projects, can and will police itself. On the surface, the stated intent and the laws are not bad. The government has endorsed legislation to rehabilitate the Aral Sea and halted construction of nine half- built nuclear power plants. Beginning in 1991, polluting factories will supposedly be fined, with 85 percent of the money going to local governmental institutions for pollution control.
But the plan to fine polluting factories is a dubious endeavor. To begin with, the big polluters in heavy industry--chemicals and steel--are excluded. One power plant in Kazakhstan that installed special scrubbers had to cut its staff and lost 600 megawatts of generating capacity to pay for them. Other factories, which under the Soviet move towards a market economy are meant to be self-financing, will claim they cannot afford to provide similar controls. Still others will simply bribe inspectors. In poor parts of the nation, authorities prefer jobs to a clean environment. "The largest supply of artesian water in central Russia lies near the town of Pervomaisk," reports one area resident. "The town council is planning to construct a pesticide factory there, even though this will most probably endanger the water supply. Why? Because Pervomaisk is poor, and with the pesticide plant the town will get roads, schools and hospitals."
The government's management of the Chernobyl disaster does not bode well for its self-regulating capabilities. After Chernobyl, livestock thought to be contaminated from the accident were killed so their meat would not be eaten. But some of the meat was transported to distant parts of the country, mixed with other meat and made into sausage. This was possible because the Ministry of Public Health had secretly made temporary rules raising the limits for radiation concentrations in meat.
Taming foreign polluters
Foreign investment, centered around extractive industries and tourism projects, poses another dilemma. The most advanced projects are schemes involving multinational corporations, including prominent U.S. firms which have stood by the Soviets through thick and thin: Armand Hammer's Occidental Petroleum and Cyrus Eaton's Cleveland firm.
In western Siberia, Japanese, West German, U.S. and Italian firms are beginning work on five large petrochemical projects in the Tyumen area, which environmentalists insist is on its way to becoming one of the world's great waste dumps. The nearby Ob river has been reduced to an oily sluice. Pipeline accidents number 600 per year. Just about everyone in the Soviet Union hates the project, except, of course, the Stalin-era ministries that are pushing it ahead. In March 1988, the Soviet Union made a deal with Occidental, the Japanese firm Marubeni and two Italian outfits--Montedison and ENI--to build a gas and chemical plant near Guriev in the Caspian. The total cost is $6 billion and when it is finished the complex will be located near a gas-condensate plant at Astrakhan. The Astrakhan plant was equipped with a French-made pollution control system, which did not work, necessitating the evacuation of nearby villages. Scientists predict the same thing will happen with the new projects, which have the potential to produce an accident comparable in scale to Chernobyl.
Occidental is involved in two other environmentally destructive projects. One is the Ventspils Petrochemical Complex in Latvia, which processes petroleum products for export. Enormous amounts of toxic and flammable chemicals from the complex swirl through the city and around the countryside. Occidental signed another deal to expand a chemical plant in the Ukraine that produces plastics. It already is a major polluter and each expansion is likely to make matters even worse. In both Latvia and Ukraine, independent or local reform groups have mounted serious, ongoing opposition to these foreign projects.
The Soviet populace is becoming wary of the likely environmental impacts of the multinational petrochemical corporations eager to invest in the U.S.S.R. "When perestroika began in the U.S.S.R., the country began to open doors wide for foreign companies," A.V. Yablokov, deputy chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Ecological Committee, told an international congress in Gothenburg last year. "Now the people in my country are beginning to understand that penetration of foreign firms and enterprises to the U.S.S.R. is connected with some dangers. Some people claim, and not without grounds, that many firms would like to develop their 'dirty' industries in our territory, such as ammoniac or pesticide productions."
"In a number of cases it occurred that Western chemical technology does not work in our land as it was pictured by advertisements, and chemical plants built according to Western projects proved to be sources of dangerous pollution of big regions, for instance near the northern coast of the Caspian Sea [the Astrakhan gas condensate complex]. A public campaign is developing now against construction of a tremendous oil-gas-chemical industrial complex in western Siberia. The construction had involved American and Japanese firms."
Expanding tourism can also be a problem. Leningrad is joining forces with the Cyrus Eaton Company to construct a hotel and entertainment complex northwest of the city. The site proposed for the complex sits atop an underground water reservoir which is a secondary source of drinking water for the dreadfully polluted Leningrad water supply. If Eaton builds the hotel, that water source will be permanently lost. In Leningrad, feeling against the project is so intense that 95 percent of the populace has come out in opposition.
In the Soviet Union, as in Eastern Europe, the environment has been a rallying cry for the political undergrounds that erupted in peaceful revolution in 1989.
The Soviet environmental movement originated in the early 1960s, when individual scientists questioned Nikita Krushchev's plans to sow the "virgin lands" of western Siberia with grain, pointing to the dangers of soil erosion. ln 1966, conservatives and Russian nationalists appealed to the Party Congress to save Lake Baikal, the wold's largest reservoir of fresh water whose existence was threatened by unchecked logging practices and two cellulose factories built to produce cord for bomber tires. A group of noted scientists formed a committee and Androi Sakharov took up the cause directly with Kruschev. Then, a decade ago, a coalition of scientists protested plans to reverse the direction of rivers flowing north in Siberia and Central Asia so that they would instead spread their waters on the over-planted cotton plantations. Re-established censorship in the late 1960s dampened the growth of the environmental movement, but, as Geoffrey Hosking points out in his account of environmentalism in The Awakening of the Soviet Union, what made its evolution especially difficult were the huge ministries charged with industrializing Siberia. Gidroproekt, in charge of hydroelectric projects, was part of Stalin's KGB secretive economic network, including the forced labor camps. Environmental concerns advanced as these different ministries came into competition with one another, for example, as the Ministry of Fisheries discovered its catches declined on the lower reaches of streams dammed upstream.
In today's more open political climate, saving the environment is especially important to Russian nationalists as well as to independence groups across the country. There are five large environmental groups in the Soviet Union, the largest of which is the Socio-Ecological Union, an umbrella group with 200 branches mostly in Russia itself (see "The State of Soviet Ecology," Multinational Monitor, March 1990). The Union believes change will come through political action. The other groups include the Ecological Society of the Soviet Union, which has ties with the far right Pamyat; the Ecological Union, which promotes solar and wind power and wants to use fines levied on polluters to clean up toxic wastes; and the All Union Movement of Greens, which is formally backed by the Communist Party's Youth organizations. People who participate in these groups often are also active in larger political organizations, such as the Popular Fronts, which were behind the rise of the reform politicians in Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere. These reformers view environmental concerns as major issues.
A common past, a common future
Both the United States and the Soviet Union can trace the origins of environmental pollution to the industrial revolution and the ensuing reliance on hydrocarbons. Both countries experience horrendous pollution from coal-fired electric power plants and from projects aimed at industrializing their frontiers. These include, in the United States, diversion of the Colorado River, irrigation projects in California and the Southwest and the creation of the aluminum industry, and, in the Soviet Union, hydro-electric and water diversion schemes in Siberia and the Far East. The plans to reverse the flow of Soviet rivers is no more hare-brained than Jim Wright's notorious scheme for damming up the western trench of the Rockies in Canada and piping the water through canals into the southwestern United States. In both countries, the modern environmental movement first took shape around the issue of water pollution during the mid-1960s--Lake Baikal in the Soviet Union, industrial pollution of the Raritan Bay, the Mississippi River and other bodies of water in the United States.
Today, the future of the environment can be tied to the often ignored race by both nations (perhaps more accurately, by corporations and ministries in both nations) to industrialize the last untrammelled part of the world in the far North. The Soviet Union exploits the Arctic in order to develop more gas for export to Europe. The United States is in search of more oil to maintain its wasteful energy system.
The Exxon Valdez spill is the most celebrated result of the race to tame the Arctic. But reports of Soviet exploitation are just as bad. For both countries, the most useful gift to future humanity would be a treaty preserving the Arctic along the lines set forth in Antarctica.
James Ridgeway is a columnist for the Village Voice.