Protests grow over Russian coal pollution

Photo: EcoDefense

Vladimir Slivyak

As Russian coal companies have pursued new mining projects and increased exports into the Asian market through ports in the Far East, public protests against pollution have grown.

The Russian coal industry is huge, with production tipped to climb to just under 400 million tonnes this year. While over half is consumed in a fleet of mostly aging power stations and vast steel plants, Russia is also one of the world’s largest coal exporters.

In 2017 Russia is expected to export just over 150 million tonnes of thermal coal with sales split between the Asia-Pacific and European markets. It is also the world’s fourth largest metallurgical coal exporter with 23 million tonnes likely to be exported this year, mostly to the Ukraine and South Korea.

As coal mining and exports have grown rapidly in recent years, so too has public concern.

In Kuzbass, the region where most of Russia’s coal is mined, protests have escalated this year. In previous years, protests by villagers objecting to the impacts of mining have usually only attracted a few dozen people. This year, a groundswell of public opposition to coal pollution has emerged.

On August 26, about 200 local villagers spontaneously blocked the work of coal miners from “Sibugol” company, which is part of SDS – one of Russia’ biggest coal mining companies.

Activists arrived in about 100 cars and assembled near Apanas village, about 40 kilometres south of Novokuznetsk city. The cars were then used to blockade access to the site of a proposed new open-pit mine. While police arrived on the request of company, no one was arrested as the coal company couldn’t prove that it had a license for the mine. With the blockade in place and the police refusing to take action, work mine was stopped and has not restarted.

With growing demands to stop uncontrolled mining near villages and agricultural lands there are plans to also protest against the impacts of the coal industry in the administrative center of Kuzbass.

Coal mined in the Kusbass is commonly railed thousands of kilometres to export terminals in the Far East. As the volumes exported have grown rapidly, alarm has mounted about contamination of coastal ecosystems from dust spewed from vast uncovered stockpiles at coal terminals.

At least three mass demonstrations have occurred this year in the Far East with each attracting 2-3000 people. So far the greatest concern about coal dust pollution has occurred near the major cities of Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. At the SovGavan port in Khabarovsk, public protests resulted in a three-month long ban being imposed on coal transit.

The concerns of villagers and farmers in Russia about the health effects of coal pollution and mining’s impacts on agriculture are rapidly becoming a major issue.

Vladimir Slivyak is co-chair of the Russian environmental NGO Ecodefense (website in Russian). He is on Twitter at @VladimirSlivyak.