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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ecological Police Go After Real Dirt

Vladimir Turishchev, a tough-looking mustachioed police major, waded through thick gray sludge at the Stern cement plant in Moscow's industrial southeastern district. Clouds of cement dust rose from two trucks, the wind carrying them towards nearby apartment buildings. In a corner, a worker burned a pile of paper sacks, sending up a plume of thick black smoke.

Turishchev decided that the factory was violating environmental statutes and filled out a protocol, which he handed to the company's vice president, Yury Alexandrov.

The prospect of having to pay a hefty fine drew furious protests from Alexandrov.

"Who could say if the dust covering the Moscow River's ice is from my cement or their coal?" he fumed, pointing to a coal yard 50 meters away.

The major didn't have an answer since he had no equipment to analyze the gray dust.

"I just don't get it. We have so many different agencies, but at the end of the day, we are still suffocating in Moscow," Alexandrov complained. "This company is breathing, it is working and feeding thousands of people. That's why the ecological police, the sanitary-epidemiological service and every other inspector comes here -- because we have money and here they can collect fines!"

Turishchev, a career policeman, has for the past year been serving in the Moscow Ecological Police, a new experimental force formed at the end of 1996 to give a tougher edge to the city's efforts to clean up the environment. At the end of 1999, the government will decide whether to make the Ecological Police a permanent fixture.

But after a year of existence, they are struggling to cope with public ignorance about their role, unsympathetic and often obstructive businesses, and a lack of ecological expertise in their own ranks.

The Ecological Police, which is largely staffed by policemen drafted in from regular police precincts, is designed to ensure environmental inspectors' safe passage to inspection sites in a city where even the smallest company has its own burly security guards.

Leonid Bochin, minister of ecology at Moscow's City Hall, says the policemen also bring to the job a wealth of experience in finding criminals and preparing cases for prosecutors.

And they have already had an impact. The number of criminal charges for environmental offenses has jumped from just 11 for the whole period between 1994 and 1996, to 130 in 1997, Bochin said.But the force, the first of its kind anywhere in Russia, is still suffering growing pains

"They are in a tough state of organization. Police still have to learn a lot," said Bochin. Most officers took a 60-hour course taught by specialists at the Moscow Ecological Committee before taking to the streets.

They are also hampered by confusion surrounding the ecological police's mandate. Many of their functions overlap with the work carried out by other ecological organizations, and they frequently step on each others' toes.

They report to the Interior Ministry, but their priorities are set by the minister of ecology. "We are still policemen and can be called onto a crime scene or a chase," Turishchev said, adding: "My friends tease me," for working for the Ecological Police.

Nevertheless, the Ecological Police is slowly, but surely, starting to flex its muscles.

Last month, the force, now numbering 700 and expected to grow to 1,100 by the end of 1998, launched a series of district-wide raids combing factories, markets and backyards for signs of ecological violations.

Early Thursday morning, ecological policemen sat patiently side-by-side with inspectors from the Moscow Ecological Committee, fire department and sanitary-epidemiological service, waiting for their assignments.

Their task for the day was an eight-hour sweep through the south-eastern district, a densely-populated industrial area which is home to the Moscow oil refinery and the dilapidated Moskvich auto plant.

Major Turishchev and his partner, Vasily Vostrikov were assigned to visit the Stern cement plant on the banks of the Moscow River.

It was not Turishchev's first visit to the factory, which unloads dry cement powder from railroad tracks and from there sends it to the city's constructions sites. On a previous visit last year, inspectors found enough violations to fine the company 60,000 rubles ($10,000.)

After much angry gesticulation and an hour-long shouting match between Turishchev and Alexandrov, Turishchev agreed to tone down the descriptions of ecological violations in his report and went on his way.

After thirty minutes at a food market checking on hygiene, Turishchev and Vostrikov cruised residential areas enforcing an obscure federal statute which forbids washing cars on the street. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov takes particular exception to public car-washing and has made the practice punishable by fines of up to 8,300 rubles ($1,362).

They quickly spotted four people flouting the statute. One argued he was just giving his Moskvich car a quick wipe. Another ran away before the police approached. Tatyana, 27, who was spotted washing her cherry-colored Volkswagen Golf, admitted she was at fault and was ordered to pay a fine.

But Sergei Sukhachev, a middle-aged store-owner washing down his Volkswagen Passat proved more troublesome.

As Turishchev approached and told him he was breaking the law, Sukhachev ignored him and continued shampooing his car. A group of passers-by hissed encouragement at Sukhachev: "That's the way to treat a pig."

Turishchev though, won the day. Shaking off soapy water from his shoes, he followed Sukhachev to his nearby office, served him with a ticket and told him to expect a notification of his fine in the post.