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.

Expert Analy­sis and Assessment
Galina Sidorova
Gali­na Sidorova
Ask a ques­tion
Pub­lic Value
100 /100
Entire­ty of the Investigation
90 /100
100 /100
90 /100
Reli­a­bil­i­ty of Sources
95 /100
95 /100
Strengths & Weaknesses
ele­vance of the top­ic; suc­cess­ful com­bi­na­tion of work with sources-peo­ple, experts and data­bas­es; high-qual­i­ty info­graph­ics; good text
Lack of com­ments on the part of the devel­op­ers of offi­cial mon­i­tor­ing innovations