Friday, June 5, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Olympic Construction Threatens Sochi Residents, Visitors with Mercury Poisoning

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 5 – Construction for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi threatens to disturb traces of mercury on the surface there with potentially disastrous health consequences for residents or visitors, according to geographer who said local officials had told him they knew nothing about about this potential problem but now have promised to investigate.
Nadezhda Didenko, the academic secretary of the Sochi Section of the Russian Geographic Society, told yesterday that the danger of stirring up the highly poisonous mercury deposits in the course of Olympic construction was especially great in the Krasnaya Polyana district (
She said that anyone who wanted to see what the traces of this mineral look like should visit the local museum which has a display of mercury sulfite, “the most widely distributed mercury mineral” in the region. And she said that “serious investigative work” was now needed to determine where construction might lead to spreading mercury dust into the atmosphere.
The reason that so little attention has been given to this problem up to now, she continued, is that “business and the powers that be do not need that information about mine wastes become widely known and thus frighten investors and resort visitors from Sochi.” Instead, they want to create in the media an “image of Sochi” as “a problem free” city.
Their calculations are “understandable,” but the geographer asked whether “it was necessary to take the risks” that such an approach entails. Preliminary investigations should have been conducted so that precautions could have been taken or decisions about shifting certain sites made, but these things did not happen.
And it was not as if the authorities were not told, Didenko said. “We ecologists and geologists frequently spoke about this, warned of the dangers, and asked business and the powers that be to provide money for studies in order to provide general security of the construction in this zone.” But “they did not listen to us or follow up.”
Didenko’s comments are likely to attract attention both within Russia and abroad. Domestically, not only do polls show that Russians are increasingly concerned about environmental contamination, but there has been extensive coverage in the Russian media in past years about the threat to health that mercury, “a category one” poison, poses.
And internationally, environmental organizations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, which are increasingly attentive to developments in Russia, are now likely to add their voice to those, including Boris Nemtsov and the Circassians, who oppose holding the Olympics in Sochi for other reasons.
Russia has the largest proved reserves of mercury of any country, Didenko said, although no one is mining it at any of the 23 sites where it has been found. And because Sochi is a resort area, no one has ever mined it there, perhaps one of the reasons officials have felt confident that they could ignore its potential for problems.
Scholars, however, have made appeals to officials in Sochi to study the possible impact of mercury poisoning on visitors since at least 1995, reported, but Tatyana Pshenisonova, a spokesperson for the city, said that “she “knew nothing about this and had never heard about it, but would try to find out something.”
Pshenisonova is not the only Russian official who claimed to be ignorant of the mercury problem at Olympic construction sites. Vasily Morozov, the deputy chief of the emergency situations ministry office in Sochi, said that he too was unaware of the problem but promised “to find out more details about it.”
Given that exposure to even a small amount of mercury can have serious or even fatal consequences, it seems likely that after Didenko’s report, officials will either try to find other researchers who will dismiss her conclusions as unfounded or to cover up the entire issue lest fears about mercury poisoning frighten off those Moscow needs to make the games a success.

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