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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Official Urges Action on Ecological Treaty

Volga Federal DistrictValentin Stepankov
A recent environmental disaster has given new urgency for Russia to consider ratifying a convention that requires signatories to notify one another of the potential cross-border environmental impact of their future economic activities, a top government official said Monday.

"Russia itself has recently become a victim of an ecological catastrophe on the Sungari River, in China. This fact has given us a nudge to renew the work with other ministries on ... the convention's ratification," Deputy Natural Resources Minister Valentin Stepankov said Monday, speaking at a Russian-Norwegian environmental forum in Moscow.

In November, an explosion at a chemical plant in China's northeast spewed dozens of tons of toxins into the Songhua River, also known as the Sungari, which spread into Russia's Far East and caused panic.

Russia signed the Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment Convention in 1991 but never ratified it, largely because of resistance from certain government ministries. The Finance, Defense and Nuclear Power ministries were among the most vocal opponents of ratification, Stepankov said later in an interview.

The convention has been ratified by most European countries and came into force in 1997. It obliges its signatories to notify and consult neighboring countries on planned projects that may cause environmental harm across borders.

Environmental activists hailed Stepankov's comments as a major step forward but warned that ratifying the convention would require Russia to show strong political will.

"This is a breakthrough in consciousness," said Svetlana Golubeva, president of the environmental consultancy ICF/EKO.

For years, companies and ministries in Russia were not clear on the obligations that ratification entails, with companies fearing it would hinder their economic activities, said Golubeva, a former Natural Resources Ministry official.

Under the convention, countries are required to notify each other of any proposed economic activities that might have environmental impact on adjacent countries. They are not obliged, however, to adopt environmental protection measures proposed by neighbors, said Golubeva, adding that Russia's legislation was theoretically ready for ratification.

A major advantage would be that countries that pressure Russia on environmental issues for economic ends would have one less excuse to do so, she said.

Wiek Schrage, secretary to the convention, said that Russia's neighbors would welcome ratification of the agreement. "The Baltic countries, as well as countries around the Black and Caspian seas, would be very happy to see that happen," he said by telephone from Geneva.

Schrage said Norway would especially be keen to see Russia join the convention, as both countries were intensifying their efforts to explore hydrocarbon reserves in the Arctic. "The passage of vessels with oil products is a bit of a concern for Norway," he said.

Norway reiterated that concern Monday, when Norwegian Minister of the Environment Helen Bjornoy said that oil transportation could potentially present the biggest hazard. "We are hoping for close cooperation with Russia to ensure an environmentally clean zone," Bjornoy said at the Moscow forum, referring to the Barents Sea.

Ivan Blokov, a Greenpeace activist, said he was skeptical that the convention would come into force any time soon. "The government has never submitted it for ratification [to the State Duma]," he said, adding that President Vladimir Putin would probably have to throw his weight behind the document in order for the Duma to support it.