It is surprising how often the efforts that the federal authorities make to restore order in any sector are undermined by corruption, incompetence, and slovenliness of top regional executives.
The situation around industrial safety at TogliattiAzot, one of Russia’s largest chemical fertilizer producers, offers a perfect illustration of this claim. Since the owners of the enterprise, the Makhlai family that have been hiding abroad for many years, have rendered it financially lifeless by transferring money to their offshore bank accounts, it is chronically suffering from underfunding and the issues related to it. Last year, the Komsomolsky District Court in the city of Tolyatti sentenced them and their accomplices in absentia to real prison terms for stealing 77 bln rubles ($1,042,580,000) from the company.
The shortage of financing led to numerous problems in every stage of production. The plant was on a tight budget constantly taking loans for raw materials from Tolyattikhimbank belonging to the same Makhlai family. Its CEO Dmitry Mezheyedov followed the overseas orders of his bosses practically doing nothing to ensure industrial safety at TogliattiAzot. It provoked a spike in accidents and casualties at the plant, and its top executives tried to hide them from people in every possible way. Outraged by such slapdash attitude to human lives, the workers of the plant requested help the federal authorities in this dangerous situation.
Moscow responded to the plea, and from October to November 2019 an unscheduled inspection with the participation of employees of the central office of the Federal Environmental, Industrial and Nuclear Supervision Service of Russia (Rostekhnadzor) took place at TogliattiAzot. The results turned out to be worse than one could have even expected, as a total of 360 violations of industrial safety and labor protection rules were detected. Among them there were very blatant cases that were highly likely to lead to large-scale accidents and to put at risk the lives and health of plant workers and Togliatti’s residents. The identified violations concerned all the most important sectors of the enterprise such as gas infrastructure, ammonia production, main and intra-factory pipelines, and the condition of toxic and explosive substance storage facilities.
The results of the inspection showed that for many years the local Middle Volga department of Rostekhnadzor had turned a blind eye to all violations at the plant. Box-ticking checks were held under a mutually beneficial scheme, with TogliattiAzot employees themselves drafting the lists of minor violations for the supervisors, and after that, the imposition of some token fines on the plant.
Meanwhile, regular accidents and casualties continued happening at the plant. The inspectors of the Middle Volga department of Rostechnadzor did not want to deal with them. Apparently, they even helped the TogliattiAzot management to cover up everything.
Abdrakhmanova, a former employee of the plant and deputy head of the interregional department for supervision of petrochemical facilities, explosive works and safety of subsurface management, became one of the Rostekhnadzor supervisors. She was the informer of the TogliattiAzot’s bosses working for a watchdog agency that was supposed to monitor compliance with all rules and regulations at the hazardous plant.
Abdrakhmanova also introduced her colleague Lukyanova, an inspector of Togliatti department of Rostekhnadzor, to Dmitry Mezheyedov, CEO of TogliattiAzot. As a result, an illegal bargain was made. With Lukyanova's assistance, the plant started carrying out the same formalistic checks and approved fictitious conclusions on the examination of industrial safety. She helped smooth out all the troubles with the regional Rostekhnadzor. So, she faithfully served the commercial interests of the owners instead of controlling industrial safety at the chemical giant.
However, the inspection carried out by Rostekhnadzor’s headquarters interfered in that idyll. The Middle Volga department of the watchdog agency had to imitate some kind of activity. As a result of the inspection, it sent an application to the court that due to the emergency condition of the pipelines, “the warehouse for raw acid and alkali,” class A dangerous production facility was to be eliminated. At the end of December 2019, the Komsomolsk District Court of Togliatti issued a resolution on temporary suspension of this hazardous facility. The court's ruling stated that continued operations of the facility could bring about the consequences detrimental for human life or health, the emergence of an accident or an industrial disaster, or substantial damage to the conditions or quality of the environment.
On December 27, 2019, the employees of the Federal Bailiff Service were to hand the court resolution to Dmitry Mezheyedov, and the plant's process and maintenance staff were to disconnect check valves under control of Rostechnadzor’s representatives. The bailiffs then were supposed to seal the equipment that had been shut down.
In practice, everything turned out to be more complicated. The plant’s management sabotaged action on the court ruling not allowing the bailiffs to install the seals. Lukyanova, the supervisor of the local Rostekhnadzor, accompanied the bailiffs blatantly looking after the interests of TogliattiAzot’s owners. She had not asked for process flow sheets, gas pipeline plans, and acid and alkali pipeline plans in advance to help the bailiffs seal the necessary equipment. Moreover, she did not know (or pretended that she didn’t know) the shutdown algorithm and did not demand that the plant’s top executives provide a specification of the equipment shutdown procedure at the plant, which are indeed regulatory procedures.
As a result, Lukyanova defiantly refused to authorize acts of the Federal Bailiff Service on failure to comply with the court's ruling. In the end, she simply left the production site on the pretext of the obligation to join a New Year staff party.
As a result, TogliattiAzot’s owners managed to achieve its goal. With the connivance of the local Rostekhnadzor and the regional administration, the court's ruling was disregarded, and the hazardous equipment was not eliminated as required.
At present, this inaction looks even more horrible. Since the end of March 2020, there have been already three accidents and four workers have died at the plant.
Dmitry Mezheyedov set ambitious production targets for 2020 -- to break the record of 3 mln tonnes of ammonia. Apparently, he is not going to stop even after the court ruling – otherwise the Makhlai family, which he is fully subordinate to, will miss the profit and he himself will lose his monthly salary worth 4 mln rubles ($54,160) and bonuses. Moreover, Mezheyedov's enthusiasm has an even more unpleasant side: simple workers – not Mezheedov, Lukyanova or Abdrakhmanova – continue paying a dire price for his desire to make money by all means neglecting such “minor details” as safety.
However, it is obvious that only strict federal control over industrial safety inspections and compliance of the plant top executives with all prescriptions to eliminate violations might help stop the total lawlessness of regional top executives. It turns out that only intervention of the federal authorities is likely to prevent a large-scale accident with catastrophic consequences, the danger of which is looming over the workers of TogliattiAzot and residents of Tolyatti.