April 28, 2009 / 11:45 AM / 10 years ago

INTERVIEW-Soviet toxic legacy still poisoning Russia

* Award-winning ecologist says Soviet pesticides poison soil

* Global economic crisis diverts attention from clean-up

* Delay to clean-up increases cost to people’s health



By James Kilner

MOSCOW, April 28 (Reuters) - Pesticides still poison people in the ex-Soviet Union almost two decades after the fall of the Communist superpower when farm managers liberally sprayed chemicals over fields, an environmentalist said in an interview.

Olga Speranskaya — who won an international award last week for her push to clean up the Soviet Union’s toxic legacy — also said the global economic crisis had diverted cash from cleaning up chemical waste, including from Soviet-era factories.

"There is a lot of concern about toxic contamination. It’s getting worse and especially because of this financial crisis," she told Reuters by telephone.

"Our governments show a lack of political will to tackle chemical contamination and now they have one more excuse because of the financial crisis."

Russia’s ecology ministry declined to comment.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, warehouses and pits storing chemicals — mainly pesticides — littered the new but relatively poor republics. Chemical containers buried in the pits leaked, stockpiles were dumped or burnt.

Speranskaya estimated there are about 40,000 tonnes of dangerous obsolete pesticides in Russia and up to 25,000 tonnes in neighbouring Ukraine — the worst affected areas.

She said many of the pits dug into the ground 30 to 40 years ago that held containers full of pesticides were poorly mapped and are only being discovered today, corroded and leaking.

"The consequences of not doing anything are very clear," she said.

Areas of high pesticide contamination record higher infant mortality rates, infertility, cancers and birth defects. This is accelerating as pesticides continue to poison the environment, Speranskaya added.

"Everybody is affected, even the babies in mothers’ wombs," Speranskaya, a mother-of-two, said.

A trained geophysicist, Speranskaya won the Goldman Environmental Prize — which honours six environmental activists every year — for her work since the 1990s coordinating pressure on regional and national governments to clean up the waste.



BURNING WASTE

She made progress, pushing governments to sign up for international accords, dispose of thousands of tonnes of waste and reduce dependency on chemicals.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Moldova sent its stockpiles of pesticides to France to be destroyed and Murmansk, a region in Russia’s Arctic, cleaned up thousands of tonnes of its pesticides with help from the Arctic Council, an eight member group that binds together Arctic countries.

But the economic crisis has forced Russia and other ex-Soviet countries to divert funds and spend billions propping up currencies, banks and industries.

"I doubt that under the current conditions of the financial crisis that local governments will address the problem of toxic waste," Speranskaya said.

Hastily created in the 1930s under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, collective and state farms often located in less fertile areas had to hit ambitious production targets set by bureaucrats in Moscow.

This forced farm managers to rely heavily on pesticides and fertilisers to boost yields, a practice which has been reduced.

In the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, Speranskaya said fertiliser use has dropped from up to 5,000 tonnes annually during the Soviet Union to around 94 tonnes now.

But she said 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s agricultural land was now contaminated. Speranskaya also cited the former secret city of Dzerzhinsk in Russia that produced chemical weapons.

"For example near Dzerzhinsk in Russia there is a huge waste landfill site which is always on fire and this is a major problem," she said.

The burning waste releases chemicals into the air which contaminates food supplies. Speranskaya said eggs around Dzerzhinsk showed levels of toxins 14-times higher than the European Union limit.

She said a plan to close the landfill site has been scrapped because of a lack of cash.

"The financial crisis will end but chemical contamination will get worse and worse," she said. (Editing by Myra MacDonald)



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