Picture: 123RF/INK DROP
Picture: 123RF/INK DROP

In October, surfers on Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula began to complain of eye pain and corneal burns. Some fell ill. Dead octopus, star fish and sea urchins began to wash up on the beach. Yellow foam was visible from space.

Local officials have reacted with unusual transparency to the environmental disaster. It still took too long for wide-ranging investigations to get underway. In a country vulnerable to the consequences of global warming by virtue of its frozen expanses and coastlines, better oversight is sorely overdue.

For Russia, 2020 has been a year of climate warnings. Melting permafrost in the Arctic helped trigger a fuel-tank leak that released 20,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and soil in late May, prompting comparisons with the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. By July, Siberian fires had engulfed an area larger than Greece.

The mysterious death of marine life in Russia’s sparsely populated eastern limb may seem smaller in scale but is no less dire. Scientists say the pollution has killed 95% of life on the sea floor in one bay. The 40km slick is now heading south, towards Japan. 

In Moscow, natural resources and environment minister Dmitry Kobylkin played down the incident: it was no catastrophe, he said, as no-one was hurt. A storm was blamed. Kamchatka’s governor, Vladimir Solodov, has done considerably better. His administration has  brought in researchers and environmental groups, and, last week, pledged to publish the results of all analyses as it works to figure out the exact source of the problem. He provides updates on social media.

Better yet, Solodov vowed to clean up a troubled landfill for pesticides that was initially seen as a potential culprit, even as scientists began instead to suspect a harmful algal bloom — when naturally occurring algae grow out of control and produce toxins damaging to wildlife, a phenomenon increasingly common as sea waters warm. 

A strong reaction and, indeed, openness are helpful signs, as Russia grapples with environmental challenges from record Arctic temperatures to the problematic legacy of Soviet-era environmental degradation. Earlier this year, the country’s environmental watchdog levied a near-$2bn fine on miner MMC Norilsk Nickel over the diesel spill, a figure the company disputes.

Prevention is needed too, though, and improved controls would be a start. Currently, that responsibility is spread across multiple authorities. In the case of the Arctic leak, local officials said they found out about it from social media posts, prompting a rebuke from Putin; Nornickel has denied holding back information. In the Far East, surfers raised the alarm.

The exact cause of the Kamchatka disaster has yet to be firmly established. It is already clear, though, that supervision was insufficient. Even if neither a pesticide dump nor rocket fuel stored in nearby military installations were to blame, no-one was able to swiftly say so for certain. And there are plenty of other such ageing stockpiles scattered along Russia’s distant eastern and northern reaches. As with water and soil checks, activists say much of what is sometimes Soviet-era monitoring could be updated and automated.

Further out, a clearer official strategy on combatting — not just adapting to — global warming would help. While algal blooms are not man-made, they are larger, more toxic and more frequent as sea temperatures rise. Official comments have only just begun to make the link in Kamchatka. 

Suffering the consequences of a changing climate already, Russia could do worse than put the green economy at the heart of its stated focus on developing the vast Far East region, broadly part of Putin’s national projects aimed at improving living standards and infrastructure. As Solodov argues, it would help expand tourism. So far, those plans have been heavier on rhetoric than on genuine investment and attention from the central government. 

For Russian voters, ecological missteps have long had political implications: the mishandling of the Chernobyl cataclysm, after all, contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In a Levada Centre poll published in January, before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, environmental pollution was listed as the top perceived threat, ahead of international terrorism, war and even climate change. With warnings piling up, it’s high time Moscow listens.

Bloomberg

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