Fully resurrected from political obsolesce, Al Gore was back stumping for the planet in San Francisco on Monday where he was congratulating the six recipients of the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize--the most world's most prestigious award for environmental action. Was this the final concert before new enviro-stars take center stage?
Al Gore has done wonders for promoting climate change awareness with his bio-doc, An Inconvenient Truth, but, believe it or not, there are new eco icons emerging in Gore's shadow.
The Goldman winner for Europe and Russia was Olga Speranskaya, Director of the Chemical Safety Program at the Eco-Accord Center for Environment and Sustainable Development.
In 1992, when she was at Moscow's Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Speranskaya won the Financial Times' David Thomas Prize for her essay, "What Will the Collapse of Communism Do to the Environment?" From that point, she decided to dedicate herself to organizing the NGO community in the former Soviet Union to work toward phasing out toxic chemicals emitted from unregulated industrial sites. She has successfully reigned in around 10,000 massively polluting sites in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
Big Think reached Ms. Speranskaya by email.
What has been the legacy of the communist and post-communist period on the environment?
During the Soviet era, the USSR republics served as the breadbasket of the country. As part of an agricultural assistance program, they received huge amounts of pesticides to aid in food production. For example, Kyrgyzstan used 5000 tonnes of pesticides annually. Now it uses 94 tonnes only. After the collapse of the USSR, many of these countries lost control of the system completely, with stockpiles left unguarded and obsolete chemicals improperly stored. Moldova sent their stockpiles to France for elimination but other countries did not have this opportunity. Russia only has accumulated 40,000 tonnes of obsolete pesticides, and Ukraine 25,000 tonnes.
Most of the stockpiles are found in poor, agricultural communities where unknowing farmers pick the toxic chemicals up to use for local crops or in their backyard gardens. Although many POPs, such as the pesticide DDT, are no longer in production, they continue to significantly harm human health and ecosystems due to their persistent and bioaccumulative properties, and ability to travel long distances in the environment far away from their original sources.
As a result, they continue to poison people and the environment in invisible ways. Improper storage of obsolete stockpiles and broken containers leaked into the soil, contaminating the water supply and crops, worsening the situation and providing additional opportunity for toxic release. In some parts of Central Asia, where DDT is available for purchase in open markets, the toxic, banned chemical is still used to make fruit stay fresh longer. In Tajikistan banned pesticides are sold openly at the local markets by women and children. DDT is stored at storage facilities together with food products.
Today, toxic substances are buried in ditches and stored in dilapidated buildings throughout the post Soviet region. Governments lack the capacity, financial resources and will to systematically locate, quantify, monitor, inspect and identify the toxic chemicals. Many of the stockpiles are not recorded as part of national inventories. Poor regulations compound the problem as industry generates thousands of additional tons of hazardous waste.
We are seriously concerned about insufficient access to information on toxic chemicals in goods and about lack of systems to inform citizens on hazardous chemicals in our region. People face serious problems when they try to access official sources for information on toxic emissions of industrial facilities, levels of toxic chemicals in food and health impacts of chemicals.
Sometimes we faced problems trying to communicate with local people and persuade them in the need to buy toxin-free products. A good example is the survey on mercury containing medical devices that we carried out in Russia. People prefer to buy conventional mercury containing thermometers rather than mercury-free ones. The main reason for that is the price of the mercury containing devices, which is much lower in comparison with the price of mercury free thermometers. We faced misunderstanding and unwillingness to accept the toxin-free approach from consumer side. Economic constraints were the main factors that predominate people's behavior.
It is important to note, that the majority of citizens of the former USSR republics do not require information on contents of toxic chemicals in products and goods. Such a situation is associated with low consumer culture of the population and inadequate understanding of potential threats posed by toxic chemicals that are used for production of different goods. In its turn, such an attitude is a result of economic hardships in the region, that force people to buy cheap and accessible goods without paying attention to quality aspects.
Do you see Medvedev as being more eco-conscious than his predecessor?
For example, in recent decades, an environmental emergency developed at southern outskirts of Volgograd due to wastewater collection/evaporation ponds of Khimprom and Kaustic companies. These wastewater collection ponds with their overall area of 160 km2 caused air, soil and groundwater pollution at the area of 720 km2. More that 50 chemicals compounds were identified in the pollution zone (chlorine, organofluorine compounds, phenols, arsenic, lead, vinyl chloride, etc.). As a result, residents of numerous settlements of Svetloyarskiy district of Volgograd Oblast cannot use their local drinking water sources and have to rely on trucked water - the situation may induce social tensions.