Ecology Ministry Faces Tall Task of Russian Cleanup

MORE than seven decades of neglect have turned Russia into an ecological disaster zone, and environmental officials admit the problems are so numerous they cannot cope with them all.

The government currently is working out an ecological security program to neutralize the affects of environmental contamination, Ecology Minister Viktor Danilov-Danilyan said at a news conference last week. Although 4 billion rubles (about $7 million) are planned to go toward cleanup efforts, little can be achieved given Russia's economic woes, he said.

"It's hard to change our methods of operation when the overall system is in such a state of collapse," Mr. Danilov-Danilyan said. "We can observe many more problems than we can solve."

The problems are mainly the result of inefficient management of industry and agriculture under the centralized planning system, according to an Ecology Ministry press release. The domination of military considerations in the former Soviet Union's economy also contributed to environmental problems.

The biggest environmental dangers are currently posed by oil refineries, chemical weapons production, and unsafe nuclear plant operations, the press release continued. But officials stress problems can be found in virtually every corner of the country.

For example, the water in one-third of all old underground reservoirs is unfit for drinking, Alexei Yablokov, presidential adviser for environmental and heath affairs, was quoted as saying by the Tass news agency.

The nation's arable lands are in "critical" condition, the ministry press release said. About 100 million acres out of a total 450 million acres have been rendered unusable because of industrialization or over-irrigation. About 90 million acres have dangerously high saline levels, and about 110 acres are affected by erosion.

MEANWHILE, the danger posed by toxic and radioactive waste is "enormous," the press release added. Only about one-fifth of Russia's approximately 75 million tons of toxic waste is treated, and 70 percent of waste dumps fail to meet proper standards.

The Ecology Ministry also says the level of radioactive waste in Russia has been monitored at 1.5 billion curies. About 100,000 people live in areas with dangerous radiation levels, the minister said.

Cleaning up radioactive contamination should be the government's top priority, Mr. Yablokov said. But the Ecology Ministry's ability to deal with radioactive pollution is hindered because the plants operating under the auspices of the Defense, Security, and Interior Ministries are among the chief offenders. In the past, the so-called power ministries have been reluctant to cooperate with the Ecology Ministry. In some instances, a lack of access to records makes cleanup of radioactive pollution caused by defense-related mishaps virtually impossible.

"Sometimes it seems more like archaeology than working with archives," Danilov-Danilyan said of military-related cleanup operations. But recent actions by the Defense Ministry, including the establishment of an ecological commission, give hope for greater cooperation in the future, he added.

Despite the Ecology Ministry's difficulties, the minister says he is greatly encouraged by a noticeable drop in toxic dumping in the agricultural and petrochemical spheres. The ministry plans to encourage further reductions through the development of cleaner technologies, as well as the imposition of stiff fines for violators.

Danilov-Danilyan indicated a clash with the Atomic Energy Ministry is in the offing over the construction of new nuclear plants. Contradicting Atomic Energy Ministry plans, Danilov-Danilyan said no new plants would be built in Russia, only new reactors added to already operating plants. He said closing nuclear plants currently is not feasible because of Russia's economic problems.

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