Radioactive Dump Stirs Fears in City Suburb

MTZelyonaya Gorka, once a dump for radioactive material. Up to 60 such sites are discovered in Moscow each year.
What many children in a densely populated eastern Moscow suburb used to think of as a good little hill to play and toboggan on has turned out to be a radioactive waste dump — one that local residents and ecologists say could spill over and contaminate a larger area.

The radiation-emitting dump on Bulvar Marshala Rokossovskogo, which was unearthed during incomplete cleanup works, poses a danger to Muscovites, said Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia's Energy Unit. He said the works, suspended half a year ago, were not done properly, leaving the site in a potentially dangerous state.

"The bad news is that the water has flowed in," Chuprov said. "This water might contain radioactive materials. Liquid is much more difficult to recover and keep from spreading."

Chuprov added that recent checks of the adjacent area by Greenpeace revealed radiation levels of up to 43 microroentgen per hour, compared to normal levels of 10 to 15 microroentgen per hour — possibly because of the fact that the truck wash site was not equipped with drain channels and a water collector, he said.

The dump at Marshala Rokossovskogo is just one example of a larger argument about the danger posed by the legacy of Soviet-era military institutes and plants in the city that worked with radioactive materials.

Some insist that the level of danger is overstated.

"The place was not a storage spot for radioactive waste," said Anton Matyukha, head of the center for emergency radiation works at Radon, a federal enterprise charged with locating, retrieving and securing radioactive waste. "It's just a typical former dump with some radioactive contamination. It does not pose a danger to the city."

The site, not far from the Ulitsa Podbelskogo metro station, is known as Zelyonaya Gorka, or Green Hill, because of a mound created in the 1950s — a popular recreation place for local children who use it for sledding.

In February 2002, the Sotsialnaya Initsiativa company announced the construction of an apartment building on the site and started to sell apartments in the yet-to-be-built development. Mass protests by home buyers erupted in the summer of 2005 when the company was accused of defrauding people by selling apartments that were never built or that were promised to multiple buyers. In 2007, Moscow authorities promised the would-be home buyers that apartments would ultimately be built for them on the site. Builders came in February and started to dig up the mound. Four 33-story buildings were planned.

"We were shocked to find out that they are going to unearth this," said local resident Natalia Yeremenko, 94.

As a result of the Soviet Union's efforts to push forward its atomic programs, Soviet-era Moscow was home to a number of military plants, research institutes and factories working with radioactive materials.

"Moscow is a unique city. Where else could you find 11 nuclear reactors in the middle of such a large population?" said Chuprov, referring to their number in the Soviet era.

Waste from these facilities, as well as chemical waste from hospitals, was dumped in forests and ravines outside the city, he said.

As the city grew, extending its boundaries, much of the new construction was on top of radiation-emitting dumps.

"We usually discover this while monitoring the ground for new construction sites, which is now a legal requirement," Matyukha said.

Each year, from 20 to 60 new sites contaminated by radioactivity are found in the city, but thanks to proper cleanup practices the situation in Moscow is entirely safe, Matyukha said. Three years ago, he said, Radon's checks on Bulvar Generala Glagoleva in northwestern Moscow — near the Kurchatov nuclear research institute — discovered radiation contamination in a children's playground. Experts have said it was only low- and medium-level radioactive waste, and the health risks have not been conclusively established.

Zelyonaya Gorka was once just a ravine with a brook running along the bottom, Yeremenko said, but sometime in the 1940s or 1950s trucks came and unloaded all kinds of waste there. When the ravine had been filled, it was covered with concrete flagstones and soil, forming a mound about 6 meters high.

The mound probably posed no danger before it was removed. An investigation of the mound's surface by the Moscow City Environmental Usage Department in June 2002 determined that "doses of external radiation meet norms," and there was no need for cleanup work if no construction was planned.

But a study deep into the mound's contents by Radon in 2002 found that there could be "a source of high radioactivity at a depth more than 5 meters." A State Ecological Expert Evaluation in 2005 also concluded that the "ecological state of the area is unsafe and poses a danger for the residents of the buildings nearby."

To ensure that the site would be safe for residents, in 2007 the local administration permitted a private construction company, Atoll, to conduct cleanup work on the site before work on the apartment buildings was to begin.

Workers started to remove the Zelyonaya Gorka mound and excavate soil in May 2007. According to Radon's estimations, a total of 268,000 cubic meters of soil had to be excavated to a depth of 5 meters.

By law, cleanup work on contaminated sites has to be performed by licensed specialists, and environmentalists say none were involved in the work on Zelyonaya Gorka. Neither the general contractor, Expostroi M, nor transportation company Viva Trans were licensed to carry out this type of work, the Prosecutor General's Office said in an official letter sent to residents last October in response to their complaints.

A woman who answered the phone at Expostroi M said the company no longer worked on the site. She refused to give any further details and said no one else in the company was available for comment.

Multiple calls to Atoll went unanswered.

Matyukha, from Radon, said the company's specialists were present as the work was carried out, checking "every shovel of soil excavated." He said all of the contaminated soil had been removed and trucked to a dump about 80 kilometers northeast of the city, near Sergiyev Posad, to be entombed in cement, clay and dirt to contain the radioactivity.

At present, the cleanup works appear to have been suspended. In response to written inquiries from residents in July about the site, the local authorities replied that the work was complete. Matyukha concurred, adding that construction would begin when the necessary documents were ready.

"We asked the authorities what they are going to do next and have received no official answers for the last four months," said local resident Sergei Zilberman. "This dangerous place has remained unearthed for half a year already."

Zilberman said local authorities told residents that all work to recover the area had already been completed yet provided no documents proving that everything was done correctly.

An official letter from the Moscow City Environmental Usage Department said 185,000 cubic meters of soil had been excavated as of March 2008 out of the planned total of the 268,000 cubic meters.

Environmentalists complain that they are not being allowed to conduct checks of the water in the pit.

"If they have not excavated all the contaminated ground, the water pit poses a danger for the city," Chuprov said.

By law, housing construction on top of a recovered area can only occur after 10 to 15 years, said Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the Moscow office of the Yabloko Party and a City Duma deputy.

As the residents of Bulvar Marshala Rokossovskogo wait for the situation to be resolved, residents of Krupskaya Ulitsa, between Universitet and Ploshchad Vernadskogo metro stations in the city's southwest, held a rally on Oct. 18 protesting the city's plan to build a new housing complex called Nadezhda in their region.

The reason they are demanding a full expert investigation of the new project is the same as at Zelyonaya Gorka: Longtime residents say they witnessed the dumping of suspected toxic waste on the site in the 1950s.