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By John Helmer, Moscow

For more than twenty years – that’s from the beginning of President Vladimir Putin’s term in office – the residents of Chelyabinsk have believed in the romantic story of how truth would triumph over deceit, law over criminality,  in their battle to breathe the city air, drink the city water, and eat the produce of the city’s earth – most of it polluted illegally by the oligarch named Igor Zyuzin and the steel, coke and coal conglomerate he owns called Mechel.

In this archive of eighty-three reports,  beginning in 2005, the methods have been investigated by which Zyuzin has won the battle, including what Russians call the “administrative measures”, to protect his industrial pollution all these years, and the names of those responsible.  The most recent of these reports appeared just two months ago.  

Everyone in Chelyabinsk believes this story ends in tears — and from the medical angle, much worse. This is how the story of the deceit was told last week.

Source: https://74.ru/

In the verbatim translation following, the infographics come from the original; pictures and captions have been added.

June 22, 2023
The ecocide of Chelyabinsk

The subjective fiasco of the Clean Air project, and how
beautiful emission reduction figures mask the real picture
by Artem Krasnov

On paper you can see almost a twofold reduction in emissions. But in reality we see there is a different picture [ archive of city smog reports dating from December 2018 ].  From time to time Chelyabinsk suffocates from smog, although the city has been participating in the Clean Air project for seven years already, and at all official levels they say that there are fewer emissions. Journalist 74.RU Artem Krasnov tried to figure out why the declarations of officials differ so much from the testimony of our nose. We give his opinion in the first person.

I’m not a fan of making waves about Chelyabinsk burning: after all, our city is complex and industrial. But the theme itself asks for a pen along with the fine dust that litters the inner windowsill of my balcony in the same way as it did ten years ago. It is impossible to count how many evenings were ruined by gas attacks. You go out for a walk, and immediately you are pushed home to write something evil (okay, here we will make an adjustment for character and confusion due to poisoning with toxins).

At the same time, Chelyabinsk has been participating  in the national project entitled “Ecology / Clean Air”, but what exactly is involved there — this puts obligations on the record, and  interestingly, it fulfills them, allegedly so. So why does the air in the city cause flashbacks to the First World War, when soldiers of the enemy army were gassed? If you haven’t heard about the eco-project itself, click on the “Find out” block, and then we’ll figure out why the situation is really deplorable.

What is the eco-project of Chelyabinsk?

The project to save the Chelyabinsk air grew out of the national project called Ecology and its subproject “Clean Air”. Chelyabinsk was included in the list of 12 cities where it was planned to reduce by 20% the total emissions from all terrestrial pollutants (Law 195-FZ). The basis for this project was created by quadrilateral agreements, which since 2019 have been concluded by large enterprises with the regional government, Rosprirodnadzor [Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources] and the Ministry of Natural Resources. Agreements were signed with 16 enterprises of the region, of which 9 were located in Chelyabinsk or nearby — these are CHEMK, Zinc, CHKPZ, ChTPZ, Techno plant, CHMC, Mechel-Coke, Minplita plant and Korkinsky section (Promrecultivation LLC). In addition to the federal eco-project, Chelyabinsk has also created its own. This materialized in the form of 33 bilateral agreements between the regional government and the main polluters of the city. Of the Chelyabinsk enterprises, in addition to those listed above, new agreements were signed by the Signal and Oxide plants, the Chelyabinsk Metal Structures Plant, Donkarb Graphite (electrode plant), Konar Group, CHTZ-Uraltrak, Fortum PJSC (CHP-1, CHP-2, CHP-3, CHP-4) and the Plastics Plant located in Kopeysk, but close to us. The companies pledged to invest in new equipment and eliminate the most dangerous sources of emissions, which, among other things, facilitated the fulfillment of federal requirements.

It was assumed that from 2017 to 2024, emissions in the participating cities of the Clean Air project would decrease by 20%. But Chelyabinsk, at the beginning of the government of Governor Alexei Texler, assumed increased obligations — immediately minus 31.5%. Last year, the bar was raised to a sensational 45.5%, although it turned out that this did not involve additional obligations: it was just that most of the enterprises declared a reduction in emissions with a margin, so when the government added up all these projections for the future, they turned out to come to  45.5% instead of 31.5%.

So maybe we’re panicking for nothing? After all, when this twofold reduction is achieved, we will feel the difference, won’t we?

Left, the author of this report, Artem Krasnov. Centre: Chelyabinsk governor Alexei Teksler, appointed in September 2019 to replace the thoroughly corrupt Boris Dubrovsky; for the latter’s record, read this.  Before joining the government, Teksler had a long career working for Norislk Nickel. Right: Deputy Prime Minister currently responsible for the Chelyabinsk pollution level, Viktoria Abramchenko. The Kremlin website reveals that Putin has never met Abramchenko officially, one on one, since her appointment in January 2020. The collective meetings with the president which have included her have been video conferences.  

It turns out that we don’t.  I have before my eyes a comprehensive plan of the Chelyabinsk eco-project, signed by Deputy Prime Minister Victoria Abramchenko in 2022. From the tables given in the plan,  it follows that 40% of the 45.5% reduction in emissions has already been achieved in 2021, and the remaining 5.5% is the plan for 2022-2026 (that is, one-ninth of the total). If in 2017 the emissions were recorded at the level of 211,000 tonnes per year, by the end of last year they were allegedly 127,000 tonnes. So for the time remaining until 2026,  the emissions will decrease by only 5.7% from the original level.  That is, it seems like an ecological paradise has already arrived missing only five minutes (percent).

We see a similar picture in the reports of the main air polluter (in terms of emissions) — the Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Combine (ChMK, Mechel). If in 2017 emissions amounted to 68,000 tonnes, now they are about 50,000 tonnes, and in future years this figure is expected to decrease by only 2,000 tonnes. By the way, the current figures contrast, for example, with the figures of 1990, when 268,000 tonnes were recorded: that is, the company seems to have reduced emissions by more than five times in thirty years (the closure of open-hearth furnaces and the general drop in production volumes are the main factors here).

Mechel has pledged to reduce its emissions by about a third, and as of now the plan has allegedly been fulfilled by 90%. That is, in the next two years, there is no need to wait for a radical reduction in emissions at the ChMK (Mechel): the issue is considered almost closed.

Simply put, according to official metrics, the environmental project of Chelyabinsk has almost been implemented. And the air we are breathing now is about the same air that it will be at the end of a twofold decline.

Of course, there are reservations. For example, after the start of its deadline was shifted from 2024 to 2026, and if the very same Mechel is hard at work and showing its results to journalists, then the ferroalloy plant (CHEMK) is playing silent and promises only to meet the new deadlines, but no more. It is read between the lines that the eco-project is so not a priority in the circumstances that the CHEMK management does not deign to pay attention to our requests. Maybe they will make stunning progress by 2026 and we will all breathe a sigh of relief? No one forbids believing, but so far, as a journalist, I see the complete unwillingness of the combine to discuss these issues.

What does the dump have to do with it

Where do the beautiful figures of reduced emissions come from, which allegedly have already fallen by 40%? The Chelyabinsk landfill reclamation project helps a lot to sell the figures to the public. It certainly has become an important achievement, but it has also provided the lion’s share of recorded emission reductions in 2018-2021, thereby shifting the burden of this work from the industrial enterprises. Judge for yourself: the liquidation of the landfill allegedly reduced  emissions by 63,000 tonnes per year, while the industrial enterprises have been required to reduce them by 32,000 tonnes. That is, the closure of the landfill immediately provided two-thirds of the ecological success, and thereby allowed the industrial enterprises to reduce their emissions by much less than the average target [set by the governor] of 45.5%.

This is how the site of the former city dump on Severny Luch Road looked back in 2021

Source:  Leonid Menshenin

Left: In July 2010, Putin (left) made a tour of one of Zyuzin’s  plants in Chelyabinsk  where Zyuzin (next to Putin in blue) arranged for him to  inaugurate a new casting machine at the plant. Putin responded with an unprecedented endorsement. “I can only regret,” Putin said of his earlier negative  remarks about Zyuzin in July  2008, “that this caused the company’s capitalisation to fall by 20% [sic] if I am not mistaken. Anyway, Mr Zyuzin, I want to thank you for everything you did and your continued respect for domestic consumers and Russian law.”  Right: The head of the RUIE lobby, Alexander Shokin, has been a Zyuzin retainer for many years. Over this time he and Zyuzin have persuaded Putin to accept the principle that Mechel should be allowed to violate the anti-pollution laws on condition it pays small cash penalties for its poison.  The Kremlin picture records  Putin and Shokhin at their last official Kremlin meeting, March 2, 2022.

Factories smoke on their own

We know the answers of officials: forest fires and adverse weather conditions are factors, together with drought and dustiness, cars and trucks on the road, and unaccounted emissions (gardens, barbecues, the Karlikanovsky quarry, etc.).  Let’s not forget that if the same Mechel covers in detail the progress of its environmental project, then a number of plants continue to play silent, and their emissions are probably already taken into account as emission reductions in the “Abramchenko plan”.  Let’s also not forget that while the Chelyabinsk eco-project does not take into account the specific composition of the harmful substances and many activities are aimed at capturing dust (which is important in itself);  there are also more dangerous substances that cause great harm even in smaller quantities. Accounting for these emissions is still in the distant future.

According to the figures, the Clean Air project has almost been completed, but if you believe what people feel and say, it has quite failed. Someone will say that subjective assessments do not play a role in such matters. I will offer such a person to spend a night, for example, in a stable, because the difference between that and a five-star hotel is exclusively subjective. Just think of the smell while you reassure yourself the main thing is that you have a place to sleep.

Superimposed on the subjective reports is the industriousness of the factories.  According to Rosstat, the production of metal goods has increased by a third over the year, and capacity utilization of the city’s metallurgical enterprises is close to 100%. Many factories are operating  in the “gas [pedal] to the floor” mode, but somebody has to breathe this gas.

Clean Air 2.0″?

It turns out that Chelyabinsk needs a new plan, doesn’t it? Yes, and that’s already in existence.

In addition to the direct reduction of emissions, our city participates in an experiment on setting pollution quotas, so complex and confusing that even the initiates cannot explain its principles in a nutshell. The bottom line is something like this: Rosprirodnadzor specialists have performed so-called summary calculations and set emission quotas for individual enterprises in such a way that at any moment, anywhere in the city, all indicators fit into the limit of permissible concentration. This project has been stalled since 2020 and is still at the stage of various approvals. Enterprises have received quotas, are trading, developing plans, reporting, but they haven’t reached the real work of cutting emissions.  The extreme secrecy of the topic adds skepticism — for example, data on quotas issued to enterprises are not published (this is a trade secret). In this state and shifting deadlines,  the project will probably remain in limbo for some time still, although formally the State Duma has adopted the next round of toughening amendments. But tightening laws which don’t operate is like multiplication of numbers by zero.

There has been another useful initiative: this is the requirement to equip all enterprises with sensors which record real emissions of pollutants live (and not by algorithmic calculation, as is being done now). This, for example, would facilitate monitoring of enterprises during periods of adverse meteorological conditions, because so far the reduction of emissions is recorded only indirectly without taking into account a specific set of components that may have different health hazards. The project has been discussed for many years, but it was only in April 2023 that the Russian President signed the relevant law, and at best two and a half years before implementation. The enterprises themselves are just throwing up their hands: their own production of such sensors in Russia is limited, they claim, import is hindered by sanctions…

When the sensor is arguing with the scent

Another necessary, but more or less stalled project is the eco-monitoring centre which opened in 2021. The very idea of an independent assessment of air quality in different parts of the city looks absolutely reasonable.  However, so far the data do not correlate well with subjective feelings, and even on days of toxic fog, the system mostly shows the state of the air is running at normal level. There are many explanations for this, but we will not get off the ground until the numbers come together with public perceptions and sensations. After all, why do we need a thermometer showing +20 if your nose falls off from the freeze?

Not that the Clean Air project has turned out to be completely useless, no. Rather, it is the first step on a long journey. At a minimum, “Clean Air” forced the authorities and enterprises to seriously discuss the air quality in Chelyabinsk and coordinate the steps necessary to improve it. But there has not been a big breakthrough yet, which means that Chelyabinsk cannot stop so that we need to think about the Clean Air 2.0 project. Otherwise, even the progress already achieved will dissipate in the fog of the next adverse meteorological conditions.

[*] The title is a reference to “Moscow does not believe in tears”, one of the most popular Russian films of all time, first screened in 1980; to know more, read this. It won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 1981, beating films by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Akira Kurosawa; and for the time being the American Academy has not withdrawn the award. The film is banned in the Ukraine.

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