Locals count toxic cost of Sochi Games: Builders are dumping waste, polluting rivers and cutting off villages ahead of Winter Olympics

Despite Russia's 'Zero Waste', builders continue to dump hazardous material in environmentally sensitive areas

Alec Luhn
Sunday 01 December 2013 01:00

"These Olympics left us without a road and without water but gave us a quarry and a waste dump," laments one resident of a village that has been left cut off by Russia's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

As construction continues at a feverish tilt in the scramble to finish venues for the Sochi Games, so too are reports of dumping waste as authorities round up environmental activists who are revealing the cost of Russia's Winter Olympics.

In Akhshtyr near Sochi, at the same time Vladimir Putin assures the world that February's Games will come at no cost to the environment, locals have stopped swimming in the river Mzymta. They claim that pollution from dumps, where construction waste from the Games has been covertly disposed of, means they cannot sell the kurma fruit that grows in the village because it is covered in limestone dust.

Meanwhile, Akhshtyr resident Alexander Koropov said the village's wells ran dry after construction started. He claimed that builders are continuing to dump waste in the pits, as well as along the roads leading to them.

Activists say that concern for the environment has fallen by the wayside ahead of the world's eyes turning to Sochi – a long-vaunted health tourism destination – next year.

Despite Russia's "Zero Waste" pledge to reduce household and construction waste and treat hazardous waste during the preparation for the Games, builders continue to dump waste and soil in environmentally sensitive areas, a visit by The Independent on Sunday found.

Last week, Human Rights Watch called on Russia to "stop harassing... environmental activists and allow them to carry out their work".

Since the end of October, police have detained three activists with the group Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC). One of them, geologist Evgeny Vitishko, now faces three years in prison for allegedly violating travel restrictions and a curfew previously placed on him. The pressure comes as EWNC is preparing a summary draft of a report on the environmental fallout of Olympic preparations.

"The authorities want to show their power and make it so I don't chatter too much, and this is of course connected with the Olympics," said Mr Vitishko, speaking from the city of Tuapse north of Sochi.

Over the past year, law enforcement actions against Sochi area environmentalists have become "more frequent and harsh", said human rights lawyer Alexander Popkov, who represents Mr Vitishko. The pace of construction at Sochi continues to increase. Last week, President Putin toured the sites and, admitting the project was still a "long way from perfection", effectively cancelled Christmas and New Year holidays for some 95,000 workers.

At the end of October, police detained EWNC co-ordinator Andrei Rudomakha on his way to Sochi in connection with a criminal libel case opened against him last year. He said investigators later made him sign a document prohibiting him from leaving the Krasnodar and Adygea regions, although he has not been charged.

Then, on 9 November, officials of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, stopped EWNC activist Dmitry Shevchenko and searched his luggage in Krasnodar's airport, then transferred him to police detention where he was kept for four hours. Video shows officers threatening to charge him for "using offensive language" against officers.

EWNC has protested against mining and dumping related to Olympic construction that it said has severely damaged the environment of Sochi. The organisation has protested against two dumps in the Sochi National Park near Akhshtyr that have been receiving Olympic construction waste. Only last month, lorries were seen rumbling to the edge of a gigantic pit filled with spray cans, tyres and foam sheets, and dumped a stream of concrete slabs. "Other trucks pile clay on top and a bulldozer mixes everything together in a rudimentary effort to hide the mess," the Associated Press reported.

The Russian water code prohibits the dumping of waste and soil in this area, since it could contaminate the river Mzymta, which provides a large part of Sochi's water supply. After the EWNC and other local environmental organisations filed a complaint, Russia's Environmental Protection Agency fined the country's railway monopoly, Russian Railways, which is carrying out much of the Olympic construction, £1,800 for illegal dumping at the larger of the sites. But the relatively paltry fine did not stop the operation.

Despite Russian Railways' pledge that the waste management firm responsible for the dumping had "rectified the violations", a visit to the village found that waste lorries continue to bring unidentified loads to the area. A security guard at the smaller dump, which was covered by soil, said building waste had previously been brought there by mistake but had been removed. He said only soil was being dumped there now.

Meanwhile, a 45km highway from the coastal cluster of Olympic venues to the mountain cluster built by Russian Railways at a cost of £4.8bn has isolated the village from Sochi. To reach their school, local children have to walk down a long barbed-wire-lined path, across the busy Olympic highway and across a hanging bridge.

"The Olympics are not bad, but they are violating the rights of the people who live here," said Andrei Antonyan, who was picking his daughter up from her long trek home from school. "They didn't build a connecting road, but instead cut us off."

Igor, the owner of a construction company that is taking part in Olympics-related projects who declined to give his surname, said that environmental damage was inevitable when building such a huge amount of infrastructure. "It's not possible to build this from nothing in five years without some violations," he said.

He blamed the environmental violations on small subcontractors and foreign companies that "don't treat this as their country and their resort town".

But pressure on activists who uncover these violations continues. Local activist Margarita Kravchenko said she lost her job as a sales manager last year after local police inquired about her at work. She said she was fired in connection with her protests against the dumping of Olympic waste at a dump near her village of Uchdere, once the site of holiday homes for the Russian royal family.

A visit to the dump this week revealed smoke from underground fires, which may be releasing toxins into the air. "The 'Zero Waste' programme has broken down," Ms Kravchenko said.

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