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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Environmental Advocates Face Uphill Court Battles

When lawyers from Ekoyuris, Moscow's only environmental law firm, file a legal suit, they enclose copies of the relevant laws -- a revelation for most judges.

Vera Mishchenko, the president of Ekoyuris, said it is typical of judges to ask, "What is wrong with the government building a highway through a forest, or businessmen building cottages in the countryside outside Moscow?"

Unlike many other legal areas, the laws protecting the environment are adequate and only need minor changes to reach international standards, Mishchenko said. It was more a question of applying them.

The existing law, for example, requires every construction project to be approved by environmental experts. The problem is that most building companies simply ignore the rule, Mishchenko said.

Last September, Ekoyuris presented a case against the Northern Heat electric power plant on behalf of the local residents.

If the plant were completed and put in operation, the protesters argued, its 250-meter-high exhaust chimney would pollute the local water reserves which supply about 65 percent of Moscow's running water.

The plant's management argued it would use the most efficient filters, but it never produced an environmentalist's approval of the project.

After studying the environmental law thoroughly, the local court in the town of Mytishchi, where the plant was being built, said approval by an environmental expert was necessary and ruled in favor of the protesters.

But the court's ruling did not stop the construction. In the end, only lack of funds did, according to Mishchenko's colleague Olga Davydova.

"In this economic situation, the last thing people pay attention to is the protection of the environment," Davydova said. "Ecology is for the rich, not for us yet."

The lawyers are not always as successful in court. When they attempted to prevent a construction company from going ahead with a project to build a highway through the forests of Butovo, south of Moscow, the judge was more interested in Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's opinion of the plan than its environmental consequences, Mishchenko said.

"We won the case for Butovo's residents; they will get equivalent housing elsewhere," Mishchenko said. "But once they move out, there will be nobody left to protect the forest."