WASHINGTON, January 24, 2014 — Overshadowed by the political, social, economic and security issues surrounding one of the most controversial Olympics in recent memory, Sochi is also shaping up to be one of the most environmentally destructive.
Despite Russia’s promise to implement green building standards and a “zero waste” program in its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, reports of environmental damage continue to surface.
Besides being the most expensive Olympic Games in history, with a price tag climbing above $51 billion, Russia is falling considerably short of the standards set by the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 London Olympics, where 97 percent of construction waste was diverted from landfills and recycled materials were used to build several of the main venues.
The bulk of environmental damage in and around Sochi is a result of building an infrastructure to support the Olympics in an area where there was little infrastructure to begin with.
As a resort town surrounded by marshland and a national park, Sochi has had to upgrade its transportation, power, sewage and waste-disposal services, most of which are still under construction a few days before the opening ceremonies.
“In the seven years since Sochi won its Olympics bid, workers have erected 25,000 new hotel rooms, built 225 miles of road, drilled 22 new tunnels in the surrounding mountains, built new apartment buildings, poured new sidewalk, and more,” writes Colin Daileda on Mashable.
Russia Railways, Russia’s state owned rail monopoly, built an $8.2 billion, 30-mile highway and railroad network to connect the Alpine Olympic venues with the airport. In addition, two new power plants were built and countless other large-scale projects have been undertaken to prepare for the Olympics. All of this is having a devastating impact on one of Russia’s most biodiverse ecosystems.
According to recent reports, 5,000 acres of pristine forest in the Mzymta River valley were felled in the last seven years in preparation for the Olympics. Additionally, hundreds of acres of wetlands, important stopovers for migratory birds, were filled in.
Illegal dumping and landfill operations from several Olympics contractors, including Russian Railways, have been springing up around Sochi. Much of the construction waste is being dumped in locations classified as water protection zones according to reports by the Associated Press, endangering Sochi’s groundwater supply.
In other areas close to several Olympic venues, local homes are sliding downhill and many have collapsed. Homeowners blame illegal dumping pits dug below their properties by Olympic contractors.
Additionally, amid worldwide media condemnation of drive hunting and other inhumane methods of capturing and displaying marine mammals, the Russian government has flown two orca whales captured in the waters north of Japan for display at an aquarium in Sochi during the Olympics.
“It’s a sad day for Russia, a sad thing for the Olympics and a very sad situation for two orcas who now will be flying across seven time zones to spend the rest of their lives in captivity,” said a spokesman for Whale and Dolphin Conservation to The Mirror.
Other environmental damage from the Winter Games reported by the AP includes the contamination of the Mzymta River and the paving over of a popular sandy beach in preparation for a port that is no longer going to be built.
In an effort to avoid negative press on the issue, the Russian government has jailed several environmental activists and intimidated scores of others. At the same time, it has embarked on a campaign to assure that no environmental damage is being done.
“In seven years, the purity of the atmospheric air has improved twofold,” said Governor of the Krasnodar Region Alexander Tkachev in an interview with The Voice of Russia.
While widely publicizing the release of dissident mogul Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of the punk band Pussy Riot and 29 Greenpeace activists, a Russian court quietly sentenced Evgeny Vitishko, an outspoken environmentalist with the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus to three years in a penal colony. His group was ordered to suspend its activities under Russia’s highly controversial foreign-agents law.
“It seems that every other day, police in Sochi are detaining and stopping people who are political and environmental activists,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director at Human Right Watch to Al Jazeera America. “It has been a steady stream of harassment.”
In a show of insensitivity toward the environmental issues involved, the Russian government has claimed that five trees will be planted for every one cut down in preparation for the Olympics and animals “disturbed” will be “relocated or replaced.” It is obvious, however, that the solution is not that simple.
“The Mzymta Valley had the most diverse ecosystem in the region. It was a beautiful place,” said Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist sentenced along with Vitishko from asylum in Tallinn, Estonia to Al Jazeera. “Of course we can put some trees. We can breed some animals. But we can’t restore an ecosystem. We lost a territory for the future.”