UN donates £19m to clean up Russia's polluted Arctic shores

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The Independent Online

An international effort to clean up pollution in the Russian Arctic is to begin with a multimillion-pound project to identify its ten dirtiest hotspots.

Decades of industrial and military activity had led to a catastrophic degradation of some of the most precious regions on Earth, which were now facing the additional threat of global warming, experts said. The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) promised $30m (£19m) of seed-money to detect the worst sites in an attempt to encourage Russia to tackle the massive problems resulting from activities ranging from mineral mining to the dumping of nuclear submarines.

Although the money is the most substantial international investment yet in the clean-up of the Russian Arctic, it is still relatively small given that economists believe that as much as $40bn will be needed to make a discernible impact in the region. The project, called the Arctic Marine Environment Protection Programme, is being organised by the Advisory Committee on the Protection of the Sea (Acops), a non-governmental organisation based in London.

A third of the money will come from Unep, a third from Russia and a third from other countries, such as Canada, the United States and Iceland. Other Arctic countries such as Sweden and Norway may also contribute.

Tim Turner, the project's technical adviser, said the aim was to raise awareness of the issue and draw up a plan of action. "We're helping the Russians to identify the key hotspots, and this $30m will act as a catalyst for more funding," he said. "It will help Russia to identify what it would like to do strategically over the next 10 or 20 years. What we want to do is to ensure that once this process starts, it will help to ensure that such problems don't happen again."

In addition to military bases and nuclear-powered submarines, the Russian Arctic is home to sprawling industrial concerns such as oil and gas production, mineral mining and smelting. The marine environment of the Arctic supports a wide range of wild mammals, such as polar bear, narwhal, walrus and beluga whale, as well as several species of rare birds such as auk and ivory gulls.

In addition to considering wildlife, the project will take into consideration the impact of pollution and industrial development on local indigenous people - there are eleven ethnic groups living in Russia who are considered to be Arctic dwellers. A spokesman for the project said: "These indigenous populations are threatened by dislocation, interactions with immigrants and the associated decline of traditional activities and values."

Two thirds of the heavy metal pollutants - such as cadmium and mercury - detected in the atmosphere in the High Arctic originate from industrial activities in Russian smelting and mining factories, such as those located on the Kola Peninsula and the industrial complex around the city of Norilsk, the most northerly in Russia.

Studies had shown that levels of heavy metals in the ground around a factory or mine could exceed background levels for up to 20 miles from the actual source, the spokesman said. Animals at the top of the Arctic food chain, such as polar bears, birds of prey and some species of predatory fish, were particularly vulnerable to a build-up of chemical pollutants in their tissue.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton, chairman of Acops and a climate scientist, said that the involvement of the international community was a critical aspect of the project, which was supported by the highest levels of the Russian government.

"The principle of partnership which underlies this project is reflected in the wide array of governments and institutions which are supporting it," Lord Hunt said.

One area of concern was that, with global warming, the Arctic permafrost could begin to melt, causing further environmental degradation. "Our view is that we should be engaged, we should talk to them and make sure there is a clear monitoring of the permafrost and these processes," Lord Hunt said.

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