In the mid-1980s, my first big journalistic business trip happened. It was to the North, and one of the stops on the way was Norilsk. I remember leaving my hotel on a June day that was too sultry for those places and finding myself inside a “sandstorm” — the city was enveloped in a yellowish haze. People moved in short runs, covering their faces with whatever they had. By mid-afternoon the smog had a little cleared, but the feeling of “sand in the mouth” did not go away. A man who ran by explained in a casual way, “The plant smokes…”
… “Daddy, I can’t breathe, help me!” the girl was lucky to be born in the era of cell phones, and her father was in time to help. This scary episode opens the investigation of IStories (by Polina Uzhvak), showing that even 35 years later, there is still nothing to breathe in Norilsk.
However, some changes are evident. Putin’s government has found its own way to fight against harmful emissions: improving the statistics on paper, without changing anything in the real life of those who are forced to breathe in toxic fumes, get sick, and die because of bad ecology. Norilsk smokes. Figures are weird Journalists found out how it happens by studying the data on air pollution in Russia and talking to environmental experts from different regions.
Resident of Norilsk Ramil Sadrlimanov, father of a girl who almost suffocated from sulfur oxide fumes in the street, took up the case himself after the incident. Together with a friend, they began measuring the air with a device received as a gift from the All-Russian Society for Nature Conservation and certified by the Federal Agency for Technical Regulation and Metrology. July measurements showed sulfur dioxide levels 16.6 times higher than the maximum permissible concentration, hydrogen sulfide 30 times higher, mercaptans 51 times higher, and hydrocarbons 149 times higher. (MPC — maximum allowable concentration, established by the Chief State Sanitary Doctor of the Russian Federation for 716 pollutants — ed.)
However, neither Rospotrebnadzor, nor plant managers are in a hurry to receive information from residents. At a meeting with community members and environmentalists, a representative of NorNickel, cited by IStories, said that the above measurements were made by some “obscure blogger”. And Rospotrebnadzor explained its position this way: even if the device is certified, what if they did not observe the rules of air sampling — they could have run the air through the device for several days and then show 500 times excess, or bring the device to the exhaust pipe? Rospotrebnadzor itself publishes data on air pollution only once a month. According to this information, in June, for example, all substances were within the norm, except for nitrogen dioxide, which was 2.3 times higher than the MPC, and copper, 1.4 times higher.
Independent measurements are taken by residents of many cities with large enterprises. What cannot be said about official agencies. Journalists found out that in 2019 state observations of atmospheric pollution — most of which are carried out by the Federal Environmental Monitoring Service (Rosgidromet) — covered only a fifth of all Russian cities. And no more than 34 different substances are measured within a single monitoring zone. This data comes from a review of Roshydromet’s work in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of hazardous pollutants may, according to Olga Balandina, an environmentalist from Bashkir Sterlitamak, reach several hundred. “The main emission of the petrochemical plant is methanol (a strong poison that affects nerves and blood vessels, causes coughing, dizziness, headache, nausea, can cause visual impairment — ed.)”, the author of the investigation quotes her as saying, “Roshydromet doesn’t catch it”. In addition, the agency analyzes air quality several times a day, although many enterprises make most of their poisonous emissions under the cover of night.
The results of an audit conducted in 2020 by the Accounts Chamber, cited in a journalistic investigation, also prove that state environmental safety information systems do not catch a lot of things. The auditors felt that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment had failed to develop a unified environmental monitoring system in ten years. Analysts of the Accounts Chamber doubt that in the near future we will see an objective picture of pollution, especially given that the main source of data will be the same Roshydromet, whose level of technical equipment does not meet modern international standards. In the meantime, the IStories table shows that people in Russia die from air pollution twice as often as in developed countries.
The author of the investigation together with environmental experts analyzes the federal program “Clean Air” (the project covers 12 cities), which has been in effect since 2017. Its developers want to make improvements by reducing total emissions. That is what environmentalists cannot agree with saying that the fundamental problem is not volume but toxicity: what is more dangerous — a mountain of sand or a small ampoule of potassium cyanide?
And finally, the main trouble is the relaxation of regulations. According to journalists, Rosprirodnadzor has been lowering MPCs for the last 20 years. This, and not environmental improvement, as the journalist’s investigation convincingly argues, is the reason why the number of cities with high levels of pollution has been decreasing. Take, for example, the highly carcinogenic formaldehyde. If its concentration in the air greatly exceeds the maximum permissible values, it harms the central nervous system and the organs of vision. On paper, the number of cities polluted with formaldehyde has decreased dramatically in recent years. And if you take into account the more stringent old standards, since 2003 it has increased by a third. According to Roshydromet, over the past five years, enterprises have increased their emissions of the pollutant by 44 percent, while not exceeding the established norms. There is a similar situation with nitrogen dioxide. For it, values of permissible concentrations, according to Greenpeace, were increased twice, for methyl mercaptan — 660 times. As a result, MPC of methylmercaptan turned out to be higher than the threshold of sensitivity. It has a pungent odor, which can cause fainting and even respiratory failure. Nitrogen dioxide, even at low concentrations, can cause coughing and breathing problems, and in prolonged exposure to children increases their risk of bronchitis.
At the moment the fine for violating atmospheric air protection rules for legal entities is only 100 thousand rubles. Weakening of MPC allows enterprises to avoid this insignificant liability as well. It has become even more difficult for a person to prove that his or her health problems are related to harmful emissions — it requires taking measurements close to home. As Elena Vasilyeva, a specialist of the Research and Expertise Department of Greenpeace Russia, noted in an interview with IStories, “One can’t prove that health damage was caused by emissions, because according to regulations, there are no excess concentrations. According to the expert, it is very difficult to obtain data on air quality near any enterprise: “The system of state control is being transformed and destroyed, and public control is now possible on the basis of “whether there is smoke coming from the chimney”.
Journalists sent inquiries to Roshydromet and Rospotrebnadzor. Having received no answers by the time of publication, they studied the responses on the MPCs weakening which Rospotrebnadzor gave to the Russian branch of Greenpeace in 2019. At that time, the agency referred to toxicological and epidemiological studies and analysis of international experience, but refused to provide supporting documents.
The urgency and importance of the environmental issue against the background of the floods, drought and fires that swept across the world this summer — from Greece to Yakutia and Canada — are obvious. A recent 1,300-page study by an international team of scientists under the auspices of the United Nations concludes for the first time that the climate is changing sharply because of man. UN Secretary General António Guterres called the report “a red code for humanity”. The Russian agencies responsible for the environment apparently feel like they are in some other, “toxicological-hygienic” dimension.
Search technologies used by the author: work with big data, journalist’s own sources, journalistic inquiries.
Techniques used: interviews with sources and experts; analysis of data obtained; making graphs and tables.