Editorial

Volokolamsk: A 'mini-Chernobyl' in Moscow's suburbs

Anger in the small Russian town of Volokolamsk surges over toxic fumes from a landfill processing the capital's rubbish.

Volokolamsk residents have been protesting for weeks against a landfill releasing toxic fumes [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera] Volokolamsk, Russia - As the 11:32 suburban train from Moscow pulled up at the station in the town of Volokolamsk on Sunday, dozens of police awaited its passengers. Officers approached those getting off and demanded their IDs. A number of journalists, along with a few other people, were led out of the station and told to get on a bus to go for a "talk".

"You can't do that. It's my constitutional right to go wherever I want," one man protested, but was blocked by the police from walking away. After 15 minutes of arguing the police let everyone go, including the journalists.

On the way to the town centre, where a protest was to take place, a large billboard greeted passersby; "Volokolamsk - a city one wants to live in!" The town's slogan seems not to have held back residents who have fled a deteriorating environmental situation.

By midday, a crowd of people was already gathering at the central square, surrounded by police and barriers. One protester was holding a poster saying "Life, please!" and another, "Volokolamsk is not a concentration camp! Stop poisoning us!"

This was the latest in series of protests that local residents had organised against a nearby landfill that has been polluting the air of the town with toxic fumes.

"During our previous demonstration, the police also held people getting off the bus and the train," Irina Timonova, one of the organisers of the protest, explained. "Perhaps they are trying to fence themselves off from the media. They don't want people to know about our problems."

The day before, Artyom Lyubimov, a Volokolamsk activist had been detained on charges of "resisting arrest".

Timonova, a mother of two, said that some 6,000 people gathered at the central square - almost a third of Volokolamsk's population. Many had come with their children, and all those who Al Jazeera talked to said they knew people who had left the town already.

On March 21, the release of toxic fumes was so intense that dozens of children had to be taken to the local hospital with a variety of ailments - from nausea and dizziness to vomiting, nose bleeding and fainting. 

That day, Moscow region governor Andrei Vorobyev had to be escorted by bodyguards out of the hospital as people started throwing snowballs at him.

A video of a little girl pointing at the governor and doing a cutthroat gesture went viral on social media.

 

Translation: Governor Vorobyev and girl from a landfill in Volokolamsk.

 

Only after that incident, did the authorities start doing something, said Timonova. According to her, the concentration of hydrogen sulfide in the air that week was 87.5 times more than the maximum permissible concentration. By then, local media had dubbed the small town a "mini-Chernobyl". 

The regional authorities have announced a plan for degasification of the landfill and its eventual closure.

'Unknown gas'

The rubbish dump "Yadrovo" was built in 1979 to process waste from Volokolamsk. In the early 2010s, it was privatised and expanded to process rubbish from neighbouring regions and Moscow city.

Timonova said that the problems started last year and she, along with a small group of other Volokolamsk residents, organised small protests for months without any result.

It wasn't until February 22, when the first more significant gassing took place, that more people joined the demonstrations in anger.

For the 58-year-old engineer and Volokolamsk native Sergey Malytin, the tipping point was when his granddaughter got sick.

"I wouldn't have come out to protest otherwise," he said and added that he himself has been suffering from various symptoms, including difficulty breathing and nose bleeding.

"The problem is not just in Volokolamsk, it is in the whole Moscow region. Such rubbish dumps have multiplied around Moscow," he said.

"This is easy business: You dig a hole and dump garbage in it. This is big easy money. But to build a recycling plant, you need to invest and no one wants to do it."

Like other protesters Al Jazeera spoke to on Sunday, Malytin was convinced that the authorities are hiding the extent of the pollution and are not informing the population of the real concentration of dangerous gases in the air.

Andrey Kaltsov, a 37-year-old father of four, who attended the protest with his family, said that local doctors have also been reluctant to link any of the symptoms people have reported with the release of poisonous gases at "Yadrovo". He said his children have complained of difficulty breathing, but his wife has been even more unwell. She had been diagnosed with dermatitis linked to food poisoning and chronic gastritis - none of which she ever experienced before.

Andrey Kaltsov, a father of four, told Al Jazeera the landfill crisis has impacted his whole family [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera] "Only one doctor, who came from Moscow, told her that [it is linked to the gas] and that she needs to be thoroughly tested," said Kaltsov.

He, his wife and children all gave blood a week ago, but as of Sunday, they had not received the results. The local authorities have justified not releasing test results with an ongoing investigation. Kaltsov said they have been told that no toxins were found in other test results. The official diagnosis of the children rushed to hospital on March 21 was poisoning with "unknown gas".

When asked about local doctors' reluctance to diagnose symptoms of poisoning, Volokolamsk Mayor Pyotr Lazarev told Al Jazeera that the hospital is not under his jurisdiction. "Perhaps the authorities do not want that [these symptoms] are considered to be linked to the garbage dump, so that there isn't that much indignation," he said.

The mayor, a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, said he is supportive of the people's demands and has approved requests for protests. His own wife he said was at home sick, complaining of nausea, dizziness and headaches.

The Moscow region government and ecology ministry did not respond to requests from Al Jazeera for comment.

A presidential promise

On Monday, Governor Vorobyev released a statement in which he accused the owners of "Yadrovo" of being responsible for the situation. The current rubbish dump will be gradually closed down and another will be opened as per an agreement with a group of local residents representing the town's demands, the statement said.

According to Timonova, no such agreement was concluded and the members of the group all quit after Vorobyev's statement.

"It is a lie," she told Al Jazeera late on Monday.

Elena Varcheva, press secretary for the owners of Yadrovo, told Al Jazeera that the rubbish dump is currently working three times above its capacity upon the insistence of the regional government. After the closure of another dump in the suburb of Balashiha, east of Moscow, in September last year, the volume of rubbish going towards Volokolamsk increased significantly, she said.

The rubbish dump in Balashiha was closed after a local resident called in during Russian President Vladimir Putin's annual "Direct Line" on state-owned Channel One and complained about it. Putin promised to take care of the problem and in September, Vorobyev issued an order to close it.

Volokolamsk is not the only Moscow suburb currently protesting. In Kolomna, 105km southeast of the capital, people have been trying to block rubbish trucks from entering the local dump for weeks. Last week, three local residents were arrested for participating in "illegal protests". Residents of the villages of Svistyagino and Mogutovo have been trying to stop the building of two rubbish burning facilities with pickets and by blocking roads.

In Volokolamsk, at the Sunday protests, some protesters expressed hope that Putin will also hear them and solve their rubbish problem. 

"I think our president is not being told everything about what is happening here, and they probably tell him that here there are extremists, people who want to get political gains," Lazarev said, adding that he voted for Putin at the recent presidential elections.

On March 12, Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the Russian presidency, told local media that the president is receiving updates about the situation in Volokolamsk regularly and that the regional authorities are working hard to resolve the problem.

For Timonova and Kaltsov, however, not enough is being done to safeguard the health of their children, saying they will continue to protest until the rubbish dump is closed.

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova

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Mariya Petkova