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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Ecological Tailspin




A couple of months ago, President Vladimir Putin abolished his country's environmental protection agency f a decision that bodes ill not only for the people and ecosystems of one of the world's most polluted nations, but also for the security and environmental health of the entire world. Yet Putin's action has attracted virtually no attention from Western politicians or news organizations.


Acting by decree and without explanation, Putin shut down the State Committee for the Environment on May 17 and transferred its responsibilities to the Natural Resources Ministry, the government body that licenses the development of vast stores of petroleum and minerals. After eliminating the State Committee on Forestry, Putin completed his governmental reorganization by naming Alexander Gavrin, who has close ties to the country's biggest oil producer, LUKoil, as energy minister. In short, Putin has put industrial foxes in charge of the environmental henhouse.


The State Committee for the Environment had neither the power nor the status of its U.S. counterpart, the Environmental Protection Agency. Yet despite their frequent criticisms of the committee's inadequacies, alarmed activists are now gathering signatures to force a national referendum on Putin's decree. "Even a shabby State Committee for the Environment is better than no environmental monitoring body whatsoever," argues Greenpeace Russia spokesman Alexander Shuvalov.


Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, who headed the committee when it was abolished, notes that 61 million Russians already live under environmentally dangerous conditions. In 120 cities, air pollution levels are five times higher than acceptable, according to the nation's own standards. One million tons of oil f the equivalent of 25 Exxon Valdez spills f leaks out of pipelines and into the country's soil and water every month.


Nevertheless, one day after Putin's announcement, the Natural Resources Ministry declared it planned to "simplify" rules governing environmental behavior. Logging policy in particular is slated for overhaul. The country contains 22 percent of the world's forests f more than any other nation. With help from a $60 million loan from the World Bank, the Putin government plans to improve the investment climate for logging. Leveling the nation's vast forests will speed the extinction of countless plant and animal species; it will also remove a major source of fresh air and water and a counter to global warming.


Nowhere are Putin's actions more frightening, though, than with respect to nuclear technology. The State Committee for the Environment did not directly oversee Russia's nuclear industrial complex, but Putin's business-first attitude seems certain to carry over to nuclear policy. Not one of Russia's 29 nuclear power plants has a complete safety certificate and many have been cited for hundreds of violations. Yet Putin's minister for nuclear power, Yevgeny Adamov, wants to build 23 more nuclear power plants, plus another 40 advanced "fast breeder" reactors. Breeders rely on plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons.


To have plutonium shipments crisscrossing the country, where the rule of law is weak at best, is a recipe for catastrophe. Adamov says fast breeder reactors will make the nation rich, which is the same reason he offers for changing laws to allow the import of tons of nuclear waste f as if the country isn't already choking on the stuff.


Instead of abolishing the environment committee, Putin should have bolstered it to address the dangers posed by the nation's nuclear pollution and security.


The infamous Chernobyl accident of 1986 took place in Ukraine, of course, not in Russia, but its radioactivity continues to increase the risk of cancer and endanger human health throughout the region. Many of Russia's nuclear plants rely on the same technology as the Chernobyl facility.


Less well-known is the still unfolding crisis near the western Siberian city of Chelyabinsk. The Mayak complex 80 kilometers north of Chelyabinsk was the heart of the Soviet nuclear weapons production system throughout the Cold War. Three disasters with Mayak's nuclear waste f in 1946, 1957 and 1967 f have caused cumulative damages comparable to, and probably worse than, the Chernobyl meltdown.


Rivaling Chelyabinsk is the Kola Peninsula in northwestern Russia, near the border with Norway. During the Cold War, the harbors of Kola were home to the Soviet Union's Northern Fleet, which dumped used submarine reactors, spent fuel and other nuclear debris into the sea with abandon. The waters now contain two-thirds of all the nuclear waste dumped into the world's oceans.


There is still time for Putin to reverse his anti-environmental initiatives. When biologist Alexei Yablokov, a leading figure in the country's environmental movement, gave Putin a letter from members of the Russian Academy of Sciences urging restoration of the environment committee, the president responded that he would think about it. But he assigned the review of his decision to Boris Yatskevich, who, as minister of natural resources, is unlikely to reverse course without pressure.


Environmentalists, with their referendum drive, are doing their part. Outsiders, alas, are not. So far, the only official criticism of Putin's decree has been an "expression of concern" endorsed by the environmental ministers of the Nordic countries at a meeting last month. U.S. President Bill Clinton declined to raise the subject in his speech to the State Duma in June. Surely the elimination of environmental oversight in one of the most polluted, militarily potent nations on earth deserves more attention than that.


Mark Hertsgaard is the author of "Earth Odyssey: Around the World in Search of Our Environmental Future" (Broadway Books). He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.