Staunton, July 9 – Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Water Problems, says that the environmental devastation in and around Sochi as a result of construction for the 2014 Olympic Games not only is now “a forbidden theme” for the Russian media but in the time remaining is “impossible to stop.”
Consequently, he argues in an interview published this week it is “senseless to protest” what is going on there, all the more so since the destruction of the ecology of that region is only a drop in the bucket compared to the devastation of the Russian environment particularly during the last decade (www.argumenti.ru/society/n245/67419/).
But just how bad the situation really is, Danilov-Danilyan continues, is unknown even to the country’s top leaders. The reason? Over the last decade, he says, they have cut the number of environmental inspectors from 5600 to 300 for the country as a whole and reduced staffs in central institutions to the point that existing satellite photography is not being analyzed.
Asked whether Russia might suffer the kind of oil spill like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, Danilov-Danilyan said that this was unlikely because Russian wells are not nearly as deep, but he said there are other dangers reflecting a more general problem: The post-industrial world “begins to think about misfortunes only when they have already taken place.”
BP did not do that, he points out, but unfortunately, Russian specialists are not doing so either. Today, Russia has no institution like the State Committee on Ecological Expertise that was disbanded a decade ago. President Dmitry Medvedev has said that “it is necessary to re-establish it, [but] there has been no reaction.”
According to Danilov-Danilyan, “the big danger” for Russia is not from problems on oil platforms but from pipeline breaks. In the period 1992-1996, he says, there were 20,000 oil spills from pipelines every year. Andin2001, there were 40,000 spills at the point of extraction. More recently, there have been “several thousand” spills.
Another Russian problem in the petroleum industry, he continues, is the burning off of gas in the course of refining. “Exact figures about this do not exist,” he says, but “experts speak of 50 billion cubic meters” being burned off every year, a process that throws millions of tons of contaminants into the atmosphere.
Turning to the situation of Russia’s forests, Danilov-Danilyan notes that Russia has successfully “imported” an ecological crime from China. In that country, he notes, “for illegal cutting of forests, there is the death penalty. [But] with us there is a prize.” And not surprisingly ever more of Russia’s once-enormous forests are being destroyed.
Just how much of the country’s forests remain, he comments, is something “no one knows. There are “no objective official data,” although there could be. Satellite photography now allows distinguishing “a major from a colonel.” And thus one can use such photos to determine the extent of forests.
But processing satellite photography requires “several thousand people. The satellite doesn’t measure the forest on its own. And the number of [Russian experts involved in this] is constantly being reduced.” In “the wild 1990s,” Moscow employed enough to monitor the situation, but the commission that existed was “dispersed,” and the processing “died.”
Forests and other eco-systems, Danilov-Danilyan says, can be “restored” in many cases. Sometimes this can happen “relatively quickly, at others, after 300 to 400 years, and in still others not at all.” And it is possible, as the Scandinavians have demonstrated, to harvest forests in such a way that they will not disappear. But that is not what Russia is doing.
Danilov-Danilyan’s interviewer notes that Russians have a saying, “When you cut down trees, the chips fly,” and he points out that this aphorism “does not have an analogue in the majority of other languages.” Tragically, he continues, that reflects a reality: In Russia, the amount of chips is much greater than anywhere else.