Pollution in Russia is a Regional Problem in Need of European Solutions
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Pollution in Russia is a Regional Problem in Need of European Solutions

Monday, 02 March 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Russia’s largest ammonia producer, Togliattiazot, has been in the news recently due to environmental concerns in the region.
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The EU is working hard to reduce pollution and harmful emissions, with the European Commission announcing a €101.2 million investment into large-scale environment and climate projects. Under these integrated initiatives, European policymakers claim, the bloc will be well underway in its transition to a circular economy, improved air and water quality, and a better quality of life for those living on the continent.

But while Brussels is working hard on protecting its environment, it is often blind to the environmental impacts its economic activity has on its next-door neighbours. A prime example is Russia, whose vast chemical industry plays an important role in supplying the bloc with products it needs, such as nitrate-based fertilizers and the main raw material for its production, ammonia.

In fact, Brussels has been fulfilling 50 percent of its total ammonia needs by imports from Russia since 2010, thereby maintaining an industry run by powerful people and with little regard for environmental standards. Fully aware of growing public demand for environmental protection, Moscow has sought to strengthen the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage (Rosprirodnadzor) and enact more stringent penalties for breaking environmental law. But the EU could still play an important role.

When polluters fight back

These legislative improvements notwithstanding, enforcement of environmental standards across Russia is no easy task. Russia’s battle with pollution is rooted in a combination of outdated industrial plants, neglect by industry bosses and a lack of enforcement of environmental protections. Federal enforcement agencies like Rosprirodnadzor, the federal body in charge of supervising the use of natural resources, and Rostekhnadzor, the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision, remain too understaffed to adequately fulfil the massive task of continually inspecting factories across the vastness of Russia.

Perhaps no company epitomizes this problem more than Russia’s largest ammonia producer, Togliattiazot (Toaz). The plant was once of the pride of the Samara region, but is now filling headlines as a picture of environmental catastrophe. A factory audit by Rostekhnadzor in October last year found more than 300 environmental and labour violations and revealed that the plant released 91 hazardous substances into the atmosphere as part of its daily operations, alongside a number of other critical violations of industrial safety and environmental legislation.

While the owners of the firm – Vladimir and Sergey Makhlai – are hiding in the UK and the US following convictions on fraud charges, Toaz CEO Dmitry Mezheedov was recently ordered by the Komsomolsky district court to stop all operations at the facility. The January 16 decision led to temporarily halting the production, pending repairs of outdated equipment that poses grave risks to the lives of people and the environment. Yet in a display of defiance against the authorities, Toaz management fought the decision tooth and nail: next to appealing the court ruling, Toaz refused to implement the ordered shutdown, interfered with the works of the bailiffs, and launched an extensive media campaign against the court’s decision.

Questions of enforcement

The enforced shutdown was an embarrassment to Toaz, but also turned renewed attention to Rostekhnadzor, and how it had failed to fulfil its duty. Toaz had been under fire for compliance failures since 2011, when a Rostekhnadzor inspection exposed more than 550 gross violations. Over the following six years, however, there was no sign of follow-ups, penalties for violations, or efforts to address public safety concerns. Finally, only after local pressure did Rostekhnadzor pay attention to the situation and inspected Toaz in October 2019.

However, though Toaz’s global importance gives it the dubious honour of being among the biggest offenders in Rostekhnadzor’s books, it’s far from being the only one. Indeed, the scale of the Toaz scandal does little to take away from the other ticking time bombs, such as the abandoned chemical plant in Irkutsk region, the bankrupted Usolyekhimprom facility.

Referred to as a “toxic catastrophe waiting to happen,” and  dubbed a potential “ecological Chernobyl”, the Soviet-era Usolyekhimprom plant once manufactured chlorine and other chemicals across a 600 hectare site. Today, large quantities of mercury and oil waste threaten to wash into the Angara River unless they are first eliminated by the local and federal government. Following a much-publicized visit to the site, Rosprirodnadzor head Svetlana Radionova promised swift action in cleaning the area up.

Finally cleaning up their act?

That Rostekhnadzor officials are keen to take action regarding the Usolyekhimprom plant is no coincidence. It is likely the consequence of reports of inspectors’ shortcomings in a third industrial assessment – at a time when the Kremlin has put pressure on environmental protection agencies to get a grip on environmental hazards across Russia amid rising industrial output.

That Moscow is stepping up its efforts is laudable but cleaning up its industries’ act is not solely in the Kremlin’s hands. With the EU importing many of the goods produced in Russian factories, Brussels could take some demand-side measures as well. Advancements in new agricultural technologies, such as precision farming, have enabled EU-based farmers to use fertilizers more efficiently, thereby lowering fertilize waste. Doing so would also have the positive side-effect of minimizing the leakages of nitrogen compounds, a leading cause of water pollution.

As such, Brussels’ responsibility could also be an important opportunity. Environmental cooperation has been a common priority for the EU and Russia since at least 2004 so reviving related initiatives would offer an inoffensive way to strengthen bilateral relations without geopolitical posturing. For the sake of the environment, both Brussels and Moscow would be well-advised to reach for a helping hand.