Russian Activist Seeks End to Soviet Toxic Legacies

SperanskayaSix relatively unknown grassroots activists from around the globe receive a moment in the spotlight when the Goldman Environmental Prize announces its list of annual recipients. The prize, now in its 20th year, is considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. Past recipients include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, former Brazilian environment minister Marina Silva, and Nigerian environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed seven months after his recognition.

The Worldwatch Institute is honoring this year's prize winners with a series of profiles based on personal interviews. Click here for additional profiles.

A sickening odor recently drifted across the Russian countryside. Alerted by a concerned schoolteacher, local environmentalists joined government authorities to launch an expedition in search of its origin.

They found a stockpile of cancer-causing pesticides, hidden away in an unsuspicious basement.

"Nobody knew how they got there. Even the owner of this house," said Olga Speranskaya, director of the chemical safety program at the Eco-Accord Center, a Russian environmental group.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, hordes of banned chemicals have been uncovered throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Poorer communities often lack the capacity to dispose of the dangerous pesticides. Despite international bans, farmers continue to distribute the chemicals.

"As a result of overconsumption, 80 percent of land is contaminated. Water is contaminated. Food is contaminated. Human bodies are contaminated," Speranskaya said. "We cannot simply run away from toxins. We have to fight this problem."

Speranskaya, who was honored last week with the 2009 Goldman Environment Prize for Europe, leads a regionwide network of community, government, industry, and scientific leaders tasked with rooting out the toxic legacies. Since 2004, her work has assisted more than 80 projects that monitor, research, or remove the chemicals in 11 former Soviet states.

Speranskaya worked as a physicist with the Institute of Oceanology in Moscow before becoming an environmental advocate. Her career path changed course following a visit to Lake Baikal in southern Siberia. After witnessing a paper mill pollute the lake and its rare wildlife, Speranskaya entered a Financial Times writing contest with an essay that explored how the collapse of Communism would affect the environment.

"I answered this question and then I got depressed," she said. "I started thinking of switching my career from pure science to working with community groups."

Speranskaya joined Eco-Accord in 1997 and has since helped advance community awareness of the dangers associated with 12 particularly pernicious chemicals, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), that the global community has targeted for elimination.

The substances, most famously PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), are known to disrupt the endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems. Chemical exposure is also linked to various cancers and neurobehavioral disorders. Once released, the chemicals can travel globally via wind and water currents, contaminating regions as remote as Antarctica.

Speranskaya was nominated in 2004 to serve as her region's director of the International POPs Elimination Project (IPEP). She oversees an area that applied between 250,000 and 520,000 metric tons of DDT alone between 1946 and 1990, according to estimates. Since 1940, an estimated 1.8 million metric tons of the chemical were produced and applied worldwide. 

Government authorities in Eastern Europe and Central Asia regularly encourage residents to avoid exposed stockpiles of POPs. But Speranskaya said that non-governmental organizations have been key in influencing farmers to abandon the obsolete chemicals.

"Because of economic constraints, people do not afford new or less dangerous pesticides. They want to apply what they have. They go to the warehouses...take the pesticides and apply them to their backyards," she said. "The government authorities simply close their eyes."

After the Soviet Union's collapse, Moldova sent its POP stockpiles to France for proper elimination. Ukraine is now coordinating with Germany and Poland to address its toxins, but many countries still lack the financial resources to eliminate the chemicals without damaging the environment, Speranskaya said.

In Russia, many stockpiles are stored properly in warehouses. But Speranskaya said that thousands of tons of PCBs have been burned away in an effort to reduce elimination costs.

"This is really scary. The pollution cannot stay in this region.... With air and water flow, it goes far away from the original pollution source," she said. "Our problem is a global problem. As soon as the world recognizes that, the easier it will be to tackle it together."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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