Shiyes station. Image: Viktor Kokarev. The railway station in Shiyes, on the border between Arkhangelsk Region and the Komi Republic in Russia’s far north, used to be part of a village of the same name. But no one has lived here since the timber camp was closed down in 1974. Occasionally, hunters or foresters get off the train here. And it was two hunters from the neighbouring village of Urdoma, Nikolai Vorontsov and his brother, who noticed at the end of July that there were felled trees, foundation trenches and building equipment around the station. The brothers spread the information on social media and wrote to the local Lensk district council, asking what was going on. The officials there had no idea, so the residents of Urdoma set up a small committee and set off for Shiyes.
“The foresters told us straight away that they had been ordered to clear five hectares of forest for industrial development,” Nikolai Viktorov, a member of the Clean Urdoma public campaign tells me. “I talked to them. They were in shock at the very idea that such a large area of forest had to be cleared in a short time — every tree has to be marked for felling, after all. We then discovered the scale of the project: millions of cubic metres of domestic rubbish were due to be transported here for dumping. The builders were quite open about it, they told us that yes, there would be a landfill site and Moscow’s rubbish would end up here.”
In early August, there were already 80 workers and 40 pieces of equipment at the station, and by October nearly three times as many people were at work there. In August, protest meetings began to be organised at a number of places in the area, and one action in Urdoma at the end of the month attracted about 1,500 protesters, over a third of the population of the village. By mid-October, local activists had sent 82 letters to numerous addresses, including those of Russia’s Prosecutor General and the Presidential Administration.
Putin against rubbish
In mid-March, six months before all this happened, the residents of Volokolamsk, a town on the outskirts of Moscow, greeted officials with shouts and whistles outside their local hospital. Fifty seven children had been admitted there as a result of poisoning by landfill gas (LFG) from a landfill site about three kilometres from the town.
There had been protests against the site for nearly a year, but that day the conflict reached boiling point: the town’s mayor Yevgeny Gavrilov was hit on the head and the Moscow region governor Andrey Vorobyev was first jostled and then pelted with snowballs. The police took no serious action against the protesters, evidently afraid to tackle the aggressively inclined crowd. The protest quickly took on a political overtone, but in this case it wasn’t opposition politicians who were in conflict with the authorities, but people who could be called Putin’s core electorate. They didn’t just collect signatures and compose petitions, or go on marches opposing the Yadrovo dump — they blocked the road to the trucks transporting rubbish to the site. They weren’t just angry: they were organised as well.
Confirmation of construction work in Lensk district, Arkhangelsk oblast, by Moscow city authorities. On 21 August, a YouTube channel, run by long distance truck drivers, posted a video of a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his officials, where they discussed the possible closure of the Yadrovo landfill site.
This conversation clearly took place soon after the clash between officials and the Yadrovo residents in March. The video showed Sergey Donskoy, head of Russia’s Environment Ministry, who was fired from his job on 7 May, reporting to Putin on the incident. The president was demanding the closure of the site and an expert assessment of the material transported there within a month, at the end of which Donskoy and Moscow governor Vorobyev would have to report on the situation. Putin also told Donskoy that there was a budget of seven billion roubles for a clear up and proposed that Moscow’s rubbish be transported to more remote areas of Russia.
“We need to make the question of storing waste somewhere far from human habitation a priority,” the president told his officials. “I want the administration to make this a task today,” he told PM Dmitry Medvedev, and charged him with personally overseeing the matter.
In early April, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of Russia’s Liberal-Democrat Party, also proposed creating rubbish dumps in under-populated area. “Let’s scatter the rubbish over the tundra,” he said. “There’s nobody to organise protests there.” Zhirinovsky is in fact well known for making odious statements like this one, after which the regime weighs up the public response to them and bases its further actions on that.
The Moscow rubbish issue quickly gained momentum around the country. There was a plan to transport the trash to the Yaroslavl region, north of the capital. Then, in late April, refuse trucks with Moscow number plates were seen in the Tver region, northwest of Moscow. Construction of a rubbish recycling plant began in the Tula region, a similar distance south of the capital. Local residents complained that this would be the equivalent of sweeping domestic waste under the carpet rather than removing it.
The worst place for a rubbish dump
The Arkhangelsk region stretches over almost 600,000 square kilometres and has a population of just over a million. But even this sparsely populated area can’t allow for the creation of landfill sites remote from centres of habitation: to transport rubbish to a new site requires a road, and roads are usually located in places where people live.
The Clean Urdoma campaigners believe that regional governor Igor Orlov has just handed his entire region over to the Russian government to be used as rubbish dumps. A dumping site outside Severodvinsk, in the north of the region, should be ready in 2019, and people in the Konosha district in the south of the region are worried that Moscow’s rubbish will also land on their doorsteps, over 700km away.
“Yevgeny Fomenko, deputy head of government of the Arckangelsk region came to the area and told a public meeting in Urdoma that ten places in the region were under consideration as waste disposal sites and several had already been selected. The criteria were a railway line and remoteness from populated areas,” Nikolai Viktorov tells me.
Shiyes station. Image: Viktor Kokarev. The officials who came to Urdoma tried to calm the locals down by explaining that a timber processing plant and rubbish sorting facility would be built in Shiyes and would provide more jobs for the locals. But the Clean Urdoma activists are angry that work might start without any public consultation. And no one knows whether an official environmental survey has been carried out: they haven’t been shown any evidence of one.
“It would be theoretically possible to build a recycling plant without carrying out a preliminary survey,” says Alexey Kisilev, the head of Greenpeace Russia’s toxic programme. “But a combination of factors might lead someone who tried such a thing to end up behind bars for a fairly long time, because they would have committed a serious crime. I can’t imagine how no one has informed the police about this.”
The Arkhangelsk regional government has promised that a public consultation will take place, but while we are waiting for this to happen, an area beside the railway station has not only been cleared and strewn with sand, but a helipad has been constructed for visits by the top brass.
The 56-hectare construction site also occupies part of the land belonging to Urdoma. In 2004, the site was leased to the Russian Railways Corporation until 2056, and subsequently sublet to the state-owned Automobile Roads organisation, which is a subsidiary of Moscow’s housing department. Then in August the last subcontractor let the site to the Tekhnopark Company, which was set up a month before this deal. An initiative group applied to the housing department, asking for permission to carry out works, but this was refused.
In mid-August, an internal ministry telegramme arrived from Russian Railways, saying that the first 56 goods wagons of rubbish were about to be dispatched to Shiyes. The news immediately went round all the neighbouring towns and villages, including Urdoma, and led to a new wave of protests. In the end, the rubbish never arrived. But the fact that Moscow is sending its rubbish to Shiyes is a worry not only for the southern part of Arkhangelsk region, but also to neighbouring Komi Republic.
“If you were looking for the least suitable place to build a rubbish disposal site, Shiyes would be it,” Nikolai Viktorov tells me. It’s a boggy hill with clay soil. All the groundwater flows downhill from here and into the rivers.
The Vycherga river, which flows close to Shiyes, is a tributary of the Northern Dvina, which flows in turn into the Barents Sea. Viktorov believes that if a large amount of rubbish is deposited in the Shiyes district, toxic substances building up in the dumping site may leach into the river and from there into the Barents region, which includes the land mass of Russia, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
Urdoma resident Nikolai Vorontsov, who has a hunting lodge near Shiyes, tells me that when it was a village there was no cemetery there. “No one was ever buried in Shiyes. Corpses were taken to either Madmas or Urdoma because this was all just bog,” he says.
Nina Ananina, chair of the Komi Environmentalists group, also says that the local bogs are a source for the northern streams and rivers — it would be very dangerous to pollute them.
“The idea of depositing rubbish in a northern area is strange, at the very least,” she tells me. “We have a nine-month long winter when we’re totally inaccessible, and the decomposition of the biological residues that there might be in this waste happens over a much longer period than in more southern areas.”
The initiative group that is fighting the construction of a landfill site in Shiyes is calling for local residents to use only legal methods for opposing the project. Recently, activists have proposed running a local referendum on the issue of solid household waste being imported into the area from other regions, but the regional prosecutor’s office ruled this initiative unlawful.
“We’re all hunters. I don’t even know what would happen if they brought the waste to Shiyes. Although all the grannies might go and lie down on the railway line — anything to stop it happening.”
Get our weekly email