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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Plans Homes on Poisoned Site

Despite sharp protests from environmentalists, Mayor Yury Luzhkov's administration is building an apartment complex for tens of thousands of Muscovites on a site that a city study recently found to be potentially dangerous for human habitation.

The building site is at Lyublinskoye Polye, a meadow ringed by factories in the city's southeast outskirts. The study, conducted last fall by the mayor's committee on nature, found the site to be exceptionally polluted even in ecologically blighted Moscow.

Soil, air and groundwater at the site were heavily laced with carcinogenic heavy metals and other harmful pollutants, according to the study. It said that the site's soil contained eight to nine grams of mercury, cadmium and strontium -- four to eight times the amounts considered safe.

The study also cited statistics showing that in Marino, a housing complex of 60,000 residents bordering Lyublinskoye Polye, respiratory diseases from asthma to tuberculosis make up 84.8 percent of major ailments among children under 14.

Marino medical clinics also report that 40 people per 10,000 aged 40-49 in the area die of respiratory and circulatory diseases, more than twice the rate for southeastern Moscow as a whole, according to the study, which was shown to The Moscow Times by the Moscow Ecological Federation, an independent ecology watchdog.

The study suggested that the increased rate could be linked to excessive quantities of chemicals in the air around Lyublinskoye Polye; it specifically mentioned ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, benzene, manganese, phenol, chrome, carbon and cement dust.

The study also cited more mundane environmental problems, like an excess of methane that could seep into new buildings' pipes and cause fires. It concluded that more research was needed before deciding whether to recommend building more housing.

Despite these warnings, however, the city is forging ahead with plans to settle Lyublinskoye Polye by August. Luzhkov, whose tour of the site last week was shown on Moscow television, is painting the project as a boon for the 750,000 Muscovites stuck on waiting lists for city housing.

Critics accuse Luzhkov of cynically ignoring health concerns. "That is the tragedy," said Valery Sevastyanov, a deputy in Moscow's City Duma who opposes the housing project. "Many people say, 'At least give me some kind of apartment.' But we have to explain to them honestly that this could harm not just them, but also their children."

Luzhkov's top construction official, Vladimir Reissin, rejects suggestions that the project should be stopped. "We have a free country now -- people can have whatever opinion they want," he said in an interview. "But I am doing what is best for the majority."

The marshy fields of Lyublinskoye Polye stretch over 270 hectares along the Moskva River. Where they meet Marino high-rises and smokestacks lies the site: cranes, half-built foundations and a few newly constructed buildings.

Nearby flickers the eternal flame of the Moscow Oil Refinery, which churns out 50,000 tons of pollutants a year. The fields were made a wastewater dump over a century ago, and reek of sewage in summertime.

Today, most runoff from Moscow's factories, gutters and sewers ends up either in the river or in two nearby aeration facilities, which often leak into the fields, according to Nikolai Shalimov, who lives near Marino and founded the Moscow Ecological Federation.

Reissin of the city's construction department said that "parallel" to construction, the city is replacing contaminated soil with sand, installing anti-pollution technology and setting aside a bird refuge.

However, Shalimov says that little of this work is going on even at this late stage. One company Luzhkov ordered to extract heavy metals from soil still has not received the needed equipment, he said.

Shalimov and other area residents have been fighting an uphill battle.

Russian press reports have focused on positive aspects of the complex, such as a planned 450,000 square meters of living space and innovations like sloping roofs and two toilets per apartment.

Resistance to the project is likely doomed since the City Duma cannot veto Luzhkov's decisions. He even controls the city-employed scientists charged with studying the area, Shalimov said, adding, "We still have no independent experts in this country."