Russia dismantles its environmental standards

Foreground: The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Plant. (Credit: NIKOLAY RUTIN/Sputnik/Keystone)

Lake Baikal is the “Pearl of Siberia” and contains 20% of the world's freshwater reserves. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, the lake is under threat since the start of the war in Ukraine by Russia's anti-environmental policies.

The Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill is located on the southern shores of the lake. The manufacturer’s discharges are usually regulated by purification standards. In May, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment proposed that these standards be significantly lowered. The Nature Protection department now proposes to discharge waste with a 10-fold higher concentration of iron, 1.3-fold higher concentration of chromium and 13-fold higher concentration of mercury.

The state-owned corporation Rosatom is in charge of the waste disposal and it has thrown its weight behind this proposal. Founded by Vladimir Putin, this state-owned giant known for its nuclear activity is desperate to get rid of the six million cubic meters of lignin sludge, ash, and over-slime water that have accumulated on the shores of the lake. The cost of cleaning up Baikalsk’s waste is 17.53 billion rubles (300,000 CHF). Dumping it in the lake would destabilise the lake's fauna and flora.

Forests cut down by the militaires

But it is not only in Siberia that Russian nature is in danger. Russian military suggested that the government give them the right to cut down forests on the territory of the Russian Federation without any restrictions. According to the official version, it is for “defence purposes”. Under the pretext of an emergency situation, the army is trying to get the permission to chop down any tree anywhere and haul it out and sell it without any documents. The price of wood has incredibly increased in 2021. This authorisation would therefore give the army the exclusive right to get rich without being accountable to anyone. A measure that is all the more advantageous given the abundance of free labour in the army. 

The letter from the Defence Ministry was drafted in the second week of the war. At that time, Russian forest products were not on the sanctions lists and they benefited from a high price due to foreign demand. But by April, timber was included in the sanctions lists. “It is difficult to supply timber to a number of European markets” says environmentalist Evgeny Simonov. Especially since the FSC who certify that the timber was harvested in accordance with environmental standards, have left Russia and refuse to certify the supply chain. As long as sanctions are in effect and certification does not work in Russia, it will be very difficult to sell timber abroad in a profitably way.

The bill went almost unnoticed during the public discussions stipulated by the law. The military department didn’t send out any press releases, and only three days before the end of the “discussions”, Greenpeace Russia posted the military initiative on a website. The document is currently under consideration by the government.

Industrial waste in rivers and Lake

Since 24 February, Russian authorities have initiated (and even partially adopted) 13 bills, reducing ecological requirements of companies and depriving citizens of their rights. For example, deputies of the State Duma passed a decree that allows companies to dump their waste in rivers and lakes “if it is impossible to comply with the norms of permissible discharges”. Now companies no longer have to bother with waste treatment.

Sanctions have also played a role in weakening the environmental agenda in Russia. Without Western components, manufacturers are experiencing difficult times. Russian car manufacturer AvtoVAZ, known in Western Europe as Lada, has been at a partial standstill since March. In May, the government of Russia authorised the production of cars with the Euro 0 environmental standard. This is a setback of more than 30 years. Such cars were produced in Europe in 1988.