The Hidden Environmental and Human Costs of the Sochi Olympics

Jan 27 2014

Alec Luhn – The Nation

Illegal waste dumps, displacement of residents, harsh retribution against local activists: Sochi has it all.

The sochi olympics are already infamous for being the most expensive in history. But corruption-inflated construction contracts aside, there is also a huge environmental and human cost to building the Games from scratch, at breakneck speed.

It can?t be calculated in a single figure, but it?s found in places like the Sochi-area village of Uch-Dere, where smoke from underground fires pours out of a sprawling construction waste dump polluting the neighboring river; in the village of Akhshtyr, where limestone quarrying has dried up the wells and covered residents? fruit in dust; and in the village of Vesyoloye, where construction waste dumping triggered a landslide that ruined homes. The activists who try to fight these abuses have been harassed, jailed and, in the case of at least one environmentalist, looking at prison time.

?The Russian government took on an obligation to protect the environment and it didn?t fulfill it, along with many other obligations to the residents of Sochi. That?s the worst part,? says Yevgeny Vitishko, an activist with Environmental Watch on North Caucasus (EWNC). In its Sochi bid, Russia pledged to hold the cleanest Olympic Games ever under a ?Zero Waste? program, a promise that now rings hollow.

Much has been made of the fact that the Winter Olympics will be held in subtropical Sochi, which stretches ninety miles along the Black Sea in Russia?s warmest region. Despite having virtually no stadiums or ski hills, the location was championed by President Vladimir Putin, who has staked his reputation on the Games? success. Nearly everything was built from scratch, at tremendous cost.

Besides its warm climate, the Sochi area is known for its ecological richness and diversity. In 1999, UNESCO declared the Caucasus State Biosphere Nature Reserve and parts of the Sochi National Park a world heritage site, noting natural phenomena including caves, high-altitude lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and abundant flora and fauna. Many types of orchids have been cataloged here, and dolphins are a common sight along the beaches.

But the Worldwide Fund for Nature Russia, Greenpeace Russia, EWNC and others have been warning of the harmful ecological effects of Olympic preparations, including recent legislative changes easing regulations on construction in environmentally protected areas. ?We thought that the Games were inappropriate in the places they chose,? Vitishko says.

The coastal cluster of venues was built atop the Imeretinskaya Lowland, renowned for its rich bird life. With the start of Olympic building, much of it was filled in with construction waste, and now the 40,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium, which will host only the opening and closing ceremonies, sits in the lowland.

Meanwhile, EWNC activist Vladimir Kimayev says the group has found eight quarries of questionable legality around Sochi, including limestone quarries in Sochi National Park that the prosecutor general confirmed had partially filled in a stretch of the Psou River. In a 2011 letter, the prosecutor general?s office said it had brought charges over two illegal quarries there. One was operated by state-owned Russian Railways on land rented by the state Olympic construction company Olympstroy, as part of the highway and railroad project Russian Railways was building between the coastal and mountain clusters. As of mid-January, these quarries were still operating, according to Kimayev.

EWNC also knows of 1,500 unsanctioned waste dumps around Sochi, of which about two dozen are large-scale, and has been able to document four illegal dumps receiving Olympic construction waste, Kimayev says.

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Despite promises from the mayor of Sochi and the head of Olympstroy that ?not one resident? of Sochi would suffer in the lead-up to the Games, Human Rights Watch estimates that about 2,000 families have been displaced. Although most received compensation, HRW says that many were under-compensated for the loss of their homes and the income they had earned growing vegetables or renting rooms. Others were not compensated at all, including Andrei Martynov and Natalya Martynova, who like many had never been able to obtain the proper documentation for the land they had lived on near the beach since 2005. After a long legal battle, their home was bulldozed to make way for the coastal cluster. The pair now share a room in a Soviet-era hotel.

?We don?t want to be homeless?but no one wants to help us. No one wants to help us as fellow human beings,? Natalya told The Nation. ?We don?t know how we?re going to live in the future.?

The unfortunate poster child of Olympic destruction is the village of Akhshtyr, in the hills above Sochi. According to locals, the opening of two limestone quarries, a construction dump and a road caused their wells to run dry five years ago, leaving them dependent on semiweekly water deliveries. The village road was paved for a near-constant stream of dump trucks, one of which struck and killed an area man, locals say. Thick dust churned up by the trucks covers the fruit in the orchards, making it unfit for sale and depriving many of a key source of income, including resident Alexander Koropov. He and others say they can?t sell their houses because of Olympic preparations. ?I curse the Olympics because I became poor. I became an Olympic bum,? Koropov says.

This article appeared in the February 10, 2014 edition of The Nation

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