Russia living on the coal

Russia living on the coal

When Evgeny moved to the village of Starobachaty, next to his home there was a potato field. Nowit has been replaced with a mountains of rubbish, traversed by trucks that kick up a yellow dust along their path. “When the wind blows toward us , we can’t even leave our homes. The dust gets in your mouth and crunches in between your teeth”, tells Evgeny in a shaky voice.

In Kuzbass, the biggest coalfield in Russia, open air mines are popping up everywhere, turning the territory into a lunar landscape. The coal dust, which is highly toxic, spreads into the air, taints the rivers and poisons the crops.

It is not surprising that the life expectancy of the Kuzbass inhabitants is around four years shorter than Russia’s national average. Or that the region holds the record for highest rate of occupational diseases, especially those afflicting the respiratory system. Indeed, the frenzied mining activities have always taken place in spite of safety standard violations. The local environmentalist organisation “Ecozashita” revealed more than fifty violations of the minimum distance requirement – 1 kilometer – that, according to the law, represents what is the mandatory minimum distance between mines and residential areas.

“It would actually be possible at a minimum, the environmental impact of the mines. However extracting the coal in an a more ecological manner is far more costly and the mines’ owners are too stingy” explains a bitter Vladislav Tannagashev, a resident in the village of Chuvashka. The coal companies must bear the huge costs of transporting the coal thousands of kilometers toward the nearest sea ports. This is why, according to the activists, entrepreneurs are cutting back on safety costs.

The spokespeople for the local administration have been restrained in revealing the extent of the mines’ environmental impact. They have stated only that “if there had been irregularities, they would have already been fixed”. However, according to the local activists, there is deep collusion between government authorities and the mining industry. “Governor Tuleev is the chief lobbyist for the coal companies, and so has no interest in imposing sanctions on them” explains Lementuev.

The Kuzbass inhabitants are defenseless against the tyranny of the coal companies, especially due to limited awareness about their civil rights and the instruments available to defend themselves. “People write letters to President Putin or to Governor Tuleev asking for their help, as if they are writing to Santa Claus”, says a dejected Lementuev.

The main victims of this unlawfully expanding industrialization is the indigenous population of the Šori. In the past they used the land to hunt, fish and harvest, today the Šori have been forced to leave their ancestral land, made uninhabitable by the mines. No longer having any bond with the territory, they move to the cities, and as a results their language and traditions are disappearing. “We lived on top of coal. Our ancestors chose to settle in a land filled with riches. This is our curse” acknowledges bitterly Vladimir Bekrenev, a Šori businessman.

After the Paris Agreement, many western countries have begun reducing their coal consumption and are investing in clean energy sources. Nevertheless in the Kuzbass they are continuing to relentlessly extract coal. Most of the inhabitants of the region work in the mining industry or in sectors linked to the industry.

The activists of “Ecozashita” believe that if the Kuzbass does not diversify its exports, in the coming decades the region will be afflicted by a grave economic crisis. “And then, there won’t be jobs for anyone -concludes Lementuev – and there will be nothing left except the craters left by the mining industry.

Pictures of Giovanni Pigni