RUSAL Goads Environmentalists into Fight

RUSAL Goads Environmentalists into Fight
A discussion of environmental protection plans caused a huge scandal at the RUSAL Krasnoyarsk aluminum producer. The hearings have shown that the ethics of such events are still extremely low in Russia.

The hearings were held in accordance with the federal law which committed hazard class 1 industrial companies to obtain an integrated environmental work permit beginning from this year, the RUSAL press service told Wek. There are hundreds of such companies in Russia, but only 15 of them, including RUSAL’s key Krasnoyarsk asset, have been selected for public hearings in a pilot project.

"The Krasnoyarsk aluminium plant presented a programme to raise ecological effectiveness and introduce the best available technologies. Local residents’ opinions will be included in the protocol of the hearings and subsequently attached to the final version of the Environmental Impact Assessment of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter," a holding representative said.

This however is the official version of the event which recently took place in Krasnoyarsk. Eye-witnesses gave more contradictory accounts. Plant workers and the so-called "independent environmentalists and public figures" were the two antagonistic groups that emerged at the hearing from the very beginning. The latter included well-known Krasnoyarsk activists Natalia Podolyak, Ruslan Lysyi, former regional Audit Chamber head Tatyana Davydenko and former Krasnoyarsk Town Hall deputy turned restaurant owner Vladimir Vladimirov. In fact, all the hearing was a heated argument between these two groups, which at some points nearly escalated to a fight. The discussion of plant modernization plans was by no means peaceful.

The position of "environmentalists" was simple “you poison our children, get out of Krasnoyarsk.” Factory workers, who live with their families near the factory, too, were not happy with this statement and the discussion of RUSAL's Soderberg technology drawbacks and emission dynamics took a back seat.

“Two KrAZ workers threatened to beat me up after the hearing. Police accepted the statement and interrogated the offenders,” said Olga Suvorova, a lawyer and participant of the hearing. For obvious reasons, factory workers are less inclined to make public comments. However, social media comments indicate that they view the RUSAL closure supporters as “idiots” and “paid instigators.”

The Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter accounts for about 30 percent of all harmful city emissions. The company says that it has been modernizing production for the second decade, so emissions decreased from 91,200 tons in 2004 to 55,000 tons in 2018. However, there has been no dramatic improvement in the city ecology. The issue of the transition to inert anode technology is conspicuously missing from RUSAL 200-page hearing report.

At present RUSAL is talking about modernising the Soderberg technology. It was invented a century ago and regardless of improvements will never be emission-free. The inert anode does not contain any hydrocarbons, and produces pure oxygen in production. Earlier, the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter administration announced a phased transfer to the inert anode technology. In 2012, the city held a public hearing over the construction of a pilot inert anode facility. According to the published schedule, it has already been launched.

The plan’s senior executives told residents that with this technology just one electrolysis cell produced as much oxygen as 70 hectares of forest. Understandably, the cityfolk now want to keep asking them this question: “Well, where is that oxygen?” They have the support of factory workers who were cheated by “independent environmentalists.” They breathe the same polluted air in workshops, which is even more harmful, but do they have a choice if the aluminium plant is one of the few major Krasnoyarsk employers offering decent wages?

“Public debates in the modern Russia are a mechanism to influence industrial enterprises. No voting is envisioned; these debates are meant to collect recommendations that are entered in the public report and sent together with project materials to the State Environmental Expertise Expert Commission which is responsible for reconciliation decisions. Unfortunately, the experts had no opportunity to make critical comments as public activists and deputies rushed to the stage to seize the microphone, demanding the resignation of the plant’s director and company closure and insulting each other,” said Pavel Gudovsky, chairman of the Krasnoyarsk Territory Environmental Organisations Chamber.

“I haven’t found certain negative facts in the RUSAL public debate summary. For example, last year, the Rospotrebnadzor consumer rights watchdog admitted that the plant’s proposed new emission norms did not meet the requirements for residential areas.

Also, the use of the inert anode technology remains experimental and is not viewed as the key element in modernizing the aluminum plant. In general, the scandal at the public hearings showed that RUSAL lacked equal dialogue platforms for discussing acute environmental issues. If such public meetings are only held once every five to seven years, it is difficult to expect anything except an outburst of emotions towards one of the largest polluters of Krasnoyarsk, a city with one million inhabitants,” head of the Plotina environmental organization Alexander Kolotov told Wek.