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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Tape Chokes Far-East Cleanup

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- At the end of a bay filled with the sunken hulks of the once-mighty Soviet navy, a vessel called the Pallada is moored at a private dockyard in Vladivostok, waiting to be cut up for scrap.

Business at the Svatko Ltd. scrap yard should be booming right now. The bays around the largest city in the Russian Far East are filled with rusting battleships, submarines and troop transport ships - many of them half sunk - and foreign firms are eager to buy the ships as scrap metal. But Svatko has not done any work for three months. The regional government refuses to renew its license.

At least 101 large- and small-tonnage vessels sit in the harbors around Vladivostok, a formerly closed naval city of 700,000 on the Sea of Japan. And, combined with 43 corroding nuclear submarines in nearby Bolshoi Kamen and dozens more vessels around the Far East, they pose an enormous environmental hazard.

Ironically, private companies are trying to clean up many sunken ships and make a buck in the process. But they say Russia's bureaucracy, corruption and insider politics are driving them out of business.

"I am outraged that bureaucrats at all levels ignore the problem," said Yevgeny Biryukov, president of Epron Co., a firm that salvages ships. "I have all the necessary technologies for underwater work, but I can't do it. And it is the same problem all over the Far East."

For decades, the Soviet Union abandoned ships in local bays. But as the ships grow older, the ecological downside of using the sea as a junkyard becomes increasingly evident.

"Sea water is very aggressive," said Boris Preobrazhensky, chief of the Laboratory for Undersea Studies at the Pacific Institute of Geography. "When a ship sinks, the water quickly destroys it, forming heavy-metal salts. This forms compounds with organic substances and spreads all over the sea."

Heavy-metal salts can get into the food chain, causing cancer in the human body, doctors say.

The problem goes beyond leaking poisonous metals. In Bolshoi Kamen, 20 kilometers from Vladivostok across Shamora Bay, 43 aging nuclear submarines are moored. "If any of them sinks, it would be such a disaster that nobody will ever come to help raise it from the seafloor," Biryukov said.

In the case of Bolshoi Kamen, U.S. firms, with the help of funding from Japan, are building a floating facility to recycle nuclear waste from submarines. But most decommissioned ships lack high priority for cleanup and are probably destined to sit on the bottom unless a private business can be persuaded to help.

Salvage can bring in $70 a metric ton from foreign scrap dealers, down from $140 in 1996. But that money comes in highly desirable foreign currency, and so officials can be tempted to get in on the deal. Everyone from fire officials to health inspectors start showing up demanding extravagant inspection fees, said Anatoly Kovalyov, head of Svatko, a Vladivostok salvage company that employs 107 people.

Until 1996, the Russian navy was owner of its abandoned and sunken ships, when the State Property Committee assumed control of the ships, they became tangled in bureaucracy and corruption, Kovalyov said. He must now fly to Moscow to get permission to clean the bay, and says he is often met with open demands for bribes.

The federal government, however, blames Svatko for its own problems. Nadezhda Kolosyuk, head of the licensing department at the State Committee for the Environment, said Kovalyov didn't submit the necessary papers and has been guilty of bad ecological practices. "He made a lot of infringements of environmental laws," she said. "He didn't clean his company's property, and he burned oil inside an abandoned ship."

The problem is made worse by people who steal nonferrous metal from the ships. In winter, scavengers can walk on the ice out to a ship and steal whatever they can cart off. In summer, homeless people steal boats along the shore, row out to the ships and even build fires on deck.

"They are ready to sink a ship for a bottle of vodka," Biryukov said. "I saw myself how a tugboat sank within 40 minutes after one guy unscrewed a valve to get five kilos of metal."