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Dangerous environmental conditions came to the attention of the public in the Soviet Union under the glasnost
policy of the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91), which liberated the exchange of information in the late 1980s. The three situations that gripped public attention were the April 1986 nuclear explosion at the Chernobyl' Nuclear Power Station in Ukraine, the long-term and ongoing desiccation of the Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan, and the irradiation of northern Kazakstan by the Semipalatinsk (present-day Semey) nuclear testing site. The overall cost of rectifying these three disasters is staggering, dwarfing the cost of cleanups elsewhere, such as the superfund campaign to eliminate toxic waste sites in the United States. By the time the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, such conditions had become symbols of that system's disregard for the quality of the environment.
Since 1990 Russian experts have added to the list the following less spectacular but equally threatening environmental crises: the Dnepropetrovsk-Donets and Kuznets coal-mining and metallurgical centers, which have severely polluted air and water and vast areas of decimated landscape; the Urals industrial region, a strip of manufacturing cities that follows the southern Urals from Perm' in the north to Magnitogorsk near the Kazak border (an area with severe air and water pollution as well as radioactive contamination near the city of Kyshtym); the Kola Peninsula in the far northwest, where nonferrous mining and metallurgical operations, centered on the region's nickel reserves, have created air pollution that drifts westward across northern Scandinavia; the Republic of Kalmykia, where faulty agricultural practices have produced soil erosion, desertification, and chemical contamination; and the Moscow area, which suffers from high levels of industrial and vehicular air pollution and improper disposal of low-level radioactive waste. The experts also named five areas of severe water pollution: the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Sea of Azov north of the Black Sea, the Volga River, and Lake Baikal.
Each of Russia's natural zones has suffered degradation of specific kinds. In the tundra, the greatest damage stems from extraction and transportation of mineral resources by crude techniques. In delicate tundra habitats, oil spills, leaks in natural gas pipelines, and the flaring of natural gas destroy northern marshland ecosystems, which take many years to purify naturally. Also endangered are reindeer grazing lands, upon which indigenous peoples traditionally have depended for their livelihood. In the permafrost zones that constitute about 40 percent of Russia's territory, lower air, water, and ground temperatures slow natural self-cleansing processes that mitigate contamination in warmer regions, magnifying the impact of every spill and leak.
In the taiga, or forest, zone, the overcutting of trees poses the greatest threat, particularly in northern European Russia, the Urals, and the Angara Basin in south-central Siberia. Uncontrolled mining operations constitute the second major source of damage in the taiga. In the broad-leafed forest zone, irrational land use has caused soil erosion on a huge scale. Urbanization and air and water pollution also are problems.
The forest-steppe and steppe regions are subjected to soil exhaustion, loss of humus, soil compacting, and erosion, creating an extremely serious ecological situation. The soil fertility of Russia's celebrated black-earth (chernozem--see Glossary) region has deteriorated significantly in the postwar period. Overgrazing is the main problem in the pasturage regions of the Russian steppe and has severely affected the Republic of Kalmykia in southwestern Russia and the region east of Lake Baikal. In Russia's limited semiarid and arid territories, poorly designed irrigation and drainage systems have caused salinization, pollution, and contamination of surface and underground water, but not to the degree that these problems exist in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakstan.
Although reductions in industrial production caused air quality indexes to improve somewhat in the 1990s, Russia's air still rates among the most polluted in the world. According to one estimate, only 15 percent of the urban population breathes air that is not harmful. Experts fear that a return to full industrial production will mean even more dangerous levels of air pollution given Russia's current inefficient pollution control technology. Of the 43.8 million tons of pollutants discharged into the open air in 1993, about 18,000 industrial enterprises generated an estimated 24.8 million tons. Vehicle emissions added 19 million tons.
In the early 1990s, Russia's Hydrometeorological Service, which monitors air quality, reported that 231 out of 292 cities exceeded maximum permissible concentrations (MPCs) for particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or carbon monoxide. Pollution levels in eighty-six cities exceeded MPCs by a factor of ten. The most polluted cities are centers of heavy industry (ferrous and nonferrous metallurgy, petroleum refining, chemicals, and pulp production). Not surprisingly, the largest industrial cities head the list. In European Russia, these are Moscow and St. Petersburg; the Ural manufacturing centers of Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Tagil, Magnitogorsk, and Ufa; and Astrakhan', Samara, and Volgograd on the lower Volga. In Asian Russia, the heaviest air pollution is in Omsk and Novokuznetsk in southwestern Siberia, Irkutsk on Lake Baikal, the Noril'sk industrial center in northwestern Siberia, and Khabarovsk in the Far East. Levels of airborne sulfur, nitrogen, and lead remain high.
Most vehicles in Russia continue to burn leaded fuel. In the early 1990s, motor vehicles contributed about one-third of total hazardous emissions in urban and industrial areas. Throughout the Soviet period and into the 1990s, trucks were the greatest vehicular polluters because privately owned vehicles were relatively scarce. As Russia adopts the culture of the privately owned vehicle, however, it is likely that transportation will increase its share of total emissions.
Data as of July 1996