Moscow Residents Fight Back Against 'Second Chernobyl'
Their signs read "We want to live!" and "Road to Death," and many bear the bright yellow symbol warning of radiation. On Monday, several hundred protesters gathered in the south of Moscow outside residential housing blocks that overlook a nuclear waste site.
The site is located between the Moskva river and the popular Kolomenskoe park. It stretches for around 500 meters along sloping river banks and contains tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste from Moscow's nearby Polymetals Factory. The plant used to extract thorium and uranium from ore and now produces weapons and military equipment.
Demonstrators of all ages have gathered here to protest against an eight-lane road that they believe will cut through the contaminated soil. Activists are making speeches and collecting signatures against the project. "We want to live," is how one young man explains his attendance at the rally.
Local resident Anna, who prefers for DW not to print her last name, points to the windows of her apartment in one of the high-rises above. The quiet 30-year-old with blond hair and a pierced lower lip explains that she grew up in the building. "Everyone knew about it," she says of the radioactive waste site just across the railway tracks. "When I was little my parents told me not to go there."
She says when she found out about city authorities' plans to build a highway here in March, her first reaction was: "The government has gone crazy." Since then she has protested against the construction project several times, the first demonstrations she has attended as an adult.
Local resident Anna signs a petition opposing the highway right outside her apartment block.
An Expanding City
The planned highway was announced last November and construction is currently slated to begin at the end of the year. In a city plagued by traffic jams, authorities say the highway will unclog some of Moscow's busiest roads.
One of the speakers at the rally is Andrei Ozharovsky, a nuclear physicist who has become the radiation expert consulting the activists. Ozharovsky is a radioactive waste safety specialist. He has been taking journalists and local residents on tours of the nuclear waste site.
Just a short walk away from the demonstration, he leads DW through a forest on the radioactive heap, which he says has presumably been here since the 1940s or 1905s, when there was much more of a slapdash attitude towards nuclear safety. At the time, this spot wasn't yet part of the city of Moscow — but bit by bit, the capital expanded. Ozharovsky notes that it is only one of many contaminated sites in the city.
"No one knows how many there are," he says, explaining that Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, is still highly secretive.
At a forest in Moscow, signs warn of "radioactive contamination."
Ozharovsky rushes around the site with a radiation detector, periodically ducking under tape marking off areas with the words "Beware — Radiation!" to take measurements. One taken in a hole in the ground shows 7 microsieverts per hour, over double the permissible norm officials cite as 2.7 microsieverts per hour. Ozharovsky says that in April specialists from the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the government agency Radon measured a rate 25 times higher than the norm.
Radon, which is in charge of radioactive waste cleanup, has been removing some of the contaminated soil from the site every year. But in a company publication from 2006, Radon chief engineer for Moscow Alexander Barionov explains that the work is merely "a kind of therapy."
"Full decontamination with the removal of all radioactive waste" would be too expensive, he says, adding that the hilly location of the site would make a full clean-up tough. "One incautious step, and radioactive soil gets into the river."
Andrei Ozharovsky has measured dangerous radiation on the nuclear waste site.
A Dangerous Game?
But Ozharovsky insists that the problem is not the radiation per se. It would be enough to simply keep people out of the contaminated area to prevent external radiation, since the contaminated soil is currently mostly covered and contained with clay, he says. Just this weekend, city authorities fenced off part of the territory, perhaps in response to activist demands.
Ozharovsky says the real problem is the planned building work. He is also concerned about soil slipping into the river and warns that construction could create radioactive dust. This could get into people's lungs and create "internal radiation," which is much more damaging, Ozharovsky explains. "The worst case scenario is that they will simply start construction and they will start moving the soil without taking into account that it is contaminated."
The Moscow committee on architecture and urban planning, however, is insisting that construction wouldn't touch the contaminated areas. And authorities so far seem to be pushing forward with construction plans. Last week, the director of the city's division for road and bridge building, Vassily Desyatkov, told journalists that analysis of the area showed radiation that is within "permissible limits."
Signs at the protest warn of a "second Chernobyl," referring to a tragic nuclear accident in the Soviet Union.
For local resident Anna, the planned highway shows that city authorities simply don't care about the people who live here. "I don't know whose interests are driving them but they are in no way considering our interests. They are simply creating a risk to our lives and our health," she says.
Many of the protesters at the rally against the highway seem to agree and accuse the government of lying. "When you can't trust the government, of course that is scary. You want to be able to sleep at night," one woman tells DW. "But you never know: Something could collapse tomorrow, or explode because of the government sloppiness, their disregard of people's health," she says, most likely referring to the collapse of an apartment building after a gas explosion last year in the city of Magnitogorsk.
The protest is typical of the growing public discontent in Russia. The crowds shout out about other worries during the speeches, including the unpopular pension reform, the rising price of housing utility bills and the prospect of a huge garbage dump in northern Russia. Living standards and real wages have been consistently falling in Russia and that seems to be eating away at the government's popularity. Surveys released by state pollster VTsIOM earlier this month showed the ruling United Russia party had 32.3% support, the lowest rate since surveys began in 2006.
Protesters in Moscow, including Anna, are determined to draw the line at nuclear waste, however. "I am ready to fight until the end. Because this is really scary," she tells DW. "No one wants to be sick, or die or for their children to be in danger. And we have nowhere else to go. So we will fight."
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
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By Lindsey Schneider, Joshua Sbicca and Stephanie Malin
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is novel, but pandemic threats to indigenous peoples are anything but new. Diseases like measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu have decimated Native American communities ever since the arrival of the first European colonizers.
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History Reverberates on Native Lands<p>Native communities in North America have been disrupted and displaced for centuries. Many face long-standing food and water <a href="http://www.nativepartnership.org/site/DocServer/2017-PWNA-NPRA-Food-Insecurity-Project-Grow.pdf?docID=7106" target="_blank">inequities</a> that are further complicated by this pandemic.</p><p>On the Navajo reservation, which covers more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, 76% of households already <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235390130_High_levels_of_household_food_insecurity_on_the_Navajo_Nation" target="_blank">have trouble affording enough healthy food</a>, and the nearest grocery store is often hours away. COVID-related restrictions have further curtailed access to food supplies.</p><p>Clean water for basic sanitary measures like hand-washing is also scarce. Native Americans are <a href="http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/Closing%20the%20Water%20Access%20Gap%20in%20the%20United%20States_DIGITAL.pdf" target="_blank">19 times more likely</a> to lack indoor plumbing than whites in the U.S. Nearly one-third of Navajo households <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hits-indian-country-hard-exposing-infrastructure-disparities-n1186976" target="_blank">lack access to running water</a>.</p><p>Many <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6915e3.htm" target="_blank">health issues</a> that can increase COVID-19 mortality rates occur at high levels among Native Americans. These <a href="http://www.ncai.org/news/articles/2020/03/18/the-national-congress-of-american-indians-calls-for-more-attention-to-covid-19-impacts-to-indian-country" target="_blank">underlying</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30893-X" target="_blank">preexisting</a> conditions – things like hypertension, diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – are <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6913e2.htm" target="_blank">linked to diet</a> and stem from <a href="https://www.oupress.com/books/15107980/indigenous-food-sovereignty-in-the-united-sta" target="_blank">disruption and replacement</a> of Indigenous food systems.</p>
High Exposure Rates<p>These factors have clear health impacts. On the Navajo reservation, for instance, through May 27, 2020, <a href="https://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2020/May/FOR%20IMMEDIATE%20RELEASE%20-%201620%20recoveries_102%20new%20cases%20of%20COVID-19_and%20one%20more%20death%20reported.pdf" target="_blank">4,944 people</a> out of a population of 173,000 had tested positive for COVID-19, and 159 had died.</p><p>This infection rate per capita exceeds those in hot spots such as <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexandrasternlicht/2020/05/19/navajo-nation-has-most-coronavirus-infections-per-capita-in-us-beating-new-york-new-jersey/#11a4fac08b10" target="_blank">New York and New Jersey</a>. Importantly, however, it may also reflect a much <a href="https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/04/19/navajo-nation-has-higher/" target="_blank">more proactive approach to testing</a> on reservations than in many other jurisdictions.</p><p>The fact that elderly people are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 could worsen the pandemic's effects in Indian Country. Elders are the <a href="https://ais.washington.edu/research/publications/spirits-our-whaling-ancestors" target="_blank">keepers of traditional knowledge, tribal languages and culture</a> – legacies whose loss already threatens the persistence of indigenous communities.</p><p>Elders also play key roles in preserving traditional plant and medicine knowledge. In the absence of COVID-19 interventions from Western medicine, many elders have been called on to perform healing practices, which increases their exposure risk.</p>
Little Help From Federal and State Governments<p>Many tribal members rely on the federal government's <a href="https://www.ihs.gov/" target="_blank">Indian Health Service</a> for health care. But <a href="https://theconversation.com/tribal-leaders-face-great-need-and-dont-have-enough-resources-to-respond-to-the-coronavirus-pandemic-134372" target="_blank">lack of capacity</a> at the agency has hampered its response. Budget shortfalls, <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/report-grossly-inaccurate-data-used-to-divvy-up-relief-funds-for-tribes-9qkkHmeXj0uhRC42mXYqCA" target="_blank">inaccurate data</a>, the challenges of providing <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/coronavirus-risk-is-compounded-by-the-rural-DC-rMTUzzE6WDGee8jbENQ" target="_blank">rural health care</a> and ongoing personnel shortages in IHS clinics are compounded by staff being <a href="https://navajotimes.com/reznews/dikos-ntsaaigii-doodaa-nation-musters-defense-against-covid-19/" target="_blank">pulled away</a> to fight the virus in large cities.</p><p>And while many states have raised frustrations with the Trump administration's unwillingness to distribute protective supplies from the <a href="https://www.vox.com/recode/2020/4/3/21206170/us-emergency-stockpile-jared-kushner-almost-empty-coronavirus-medical-supplies-ventilators" target="_blank">dwindling national stockpile</a>, IHS and tribal health care authorities <a href="https://www.azpm.org/p/home-articles-news/2020/3/17/167874-bill-calls-for-more-tribal-community-access-to-federal-stockpile-of-medical-supplies/" target="_blank">never had access</a> to the stockpile at all.</p><p>Although the federal government has begun <a href="https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2020/05/22/hhs-announces-500-million-distribution-to-tribal-hospitals-clinics-and-urban-health-centers.html" target="_blank">distributing relief funds</a> to IHS agencies, there have been serious problems with the accompanying supplies. The Navajo Nation has received <a href="https://www.indianz.com/News/2020/05/22/propublica-former-trump-aide-provided-fa.asp" target="_blank">faulty masks</a>, and a Seattle Native health center asked for tests but <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/native-american-health-center-asked-covid-19-supplies-they-got-n1200246" target="_blank">received body bags instead</a>.</p><p>Meanwhile, federally imposed limits on tribal sovereignty have obstructed tribal governments' efforts to deal with the pandemic themselves. Federal and state governments are <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/makah-tribe-fights-coronavirus-with-self-reliance-and-extreme-isolation/" target="_blank">challenging tribes' jurisdictional authority</a> to <a href="https://www.azfamily.com/news/mayor-of-page-accused-of-racist-social-media-comment-toward-navajo-nation-president/article_e2e6efd6-8db4-11ea-a8a2-7f6976d702f6.html" target="_blank">close borders to tourists</a> who may carry the virus. South Dakota's governor has <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/14/sioux-coronavirus-roadblocks-south-dakota-governor" target="_blank">threatened legal action</a> against two tribes who set up checkpoints to monitor incoming traffic on their reservations.</p>
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Environmental Injustices on Native Land<p>Energy development and resource extraction have had <a href="https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/898-all-our-relations" target="_blank">disproportionate impacts</a> on tribes for many years. Today, many Native American leaders worry that ongoing energy production – <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/labor-and-employment/covid-19-essential-workers-in-the-states.aspx" target="_blank">an "essential" activity under federal guidelines</a> will bring outsiders into close contact with reservation communities, worsening COVID risks.</p><p>The owners of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have announced that they intend to continue construction, which will bring an influx of workers along the proposed route through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota and Fort Belknap Indian community in Montana have filed for a <a href="https://www.narf.org/keystone-xl/" target="_blank">temporary restraining order</a>, and a key permit for the pipeline was <a href="https://www.democracynow.org/2020/4/16/headlines/us_judge_revokes_crucial_permit_for_keystone_xl_pipeline" target="_blank">revoked in April 2020</a>, but work continues at the U.S.-Canada border.</p><p>Construction is accelerating on the <a href="https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2020/03/17/border-patrol-waives-laws-border-wall-construction-southern-arizona/5063618002/" target="_blank">southern border wall</a>, which bisects the <a href="http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/" target="_blank">Tohono O'odham reservation</a> in Arizona and Mexico. The Trump administration has <a href="https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/border-coronavirus-military-immigration/" target="_blank">increased patrols at the border</a>, despite the tribe's concern that the patrols' presence is <a href="https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/04/06/coronavirus-cbp-160-cases-covid-19-officers-agents/2958736001/" target="_blank">spreading coronavirus</a> on the reservation.</p><p>And in Bristol Bay, Alaska, a salmon fishing season that brings in thousands of temporary workers is <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/it-s-hard-when-you-love-something-xlS49l2N20KZjqumwfzZfQ" target="_blank">set to open in June</a> because the federal government has also deemed commercial fishing "<a href="https://www.cisa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/CISA-Guidance-on-Essential-Critical-Infrastructure-Workers-1-20-508c.pdf" target="_blank">essential critical infrastructure</a>." Many local Native villages depend on the fishery for income, but have nonetheless pleaded with state regulators to <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/urgent-calls-to-close-the-massive-bristol-bay-fishery-8lYsGkUeDUyCBW7FMwpSfA?fbclid=IwAR1710u4rQnriq_MgH2ueQxOFtfGiGiH8I2ZdJRCZS9f28Zl-JNkPLpnzZo" target="_blank">cancel the season</a>. The regional hospital has just four beds for possible COVID-19 patients.</p>
Bold Action in Native Communities<p>Native communities are taking decisive action to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They're imposing aggressive <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/us/coronavirus-navajo-nation.html" target="_blank">quarantine</a> measures like lockdowns, curfews and border closures. Communities are <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/18/covidcoronavirus-native-american-lummi-nation-trailblazing-steps" target="_blank">ramping up health care capacity</a> and elder support services, and banishing nontribal members who <a href="https://rapidcityjournal.com/news/local/oglala-sioux-council-banishes-non-member-with-covid-19-from-reservation/article_60b665c3-9d1b-5d48-a576-51774e4fb41a.html" target="_blank">violate travel restrictions</a>.</p><p>Other strategies include helping hunters <a href="https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/ammo-fuel-for-hunters-to-feed-others-Ki3zK6du-ky-UogoB9-aNQ" target="_blank">provide traditional foods</a> to their communities, <a href="https://ndncollective.org/indigenizing-and-decolonizing-community-care-in-response-to-covid-19/" target="_blank">mobilizing to support tribal health care workers</a>, and <a href="https://www.ehn.org/coronavirus-native-americans-2645923635.html" target="_blank">linking the pandemic and the climate crisis</a>. Looking ahead to a post-COVID future, we believe one priority should be attending to <a href="http://www.beacon.org/As-Long-as-Grass-Grows-P1445.aspx" target="_blank">front-line environmental justice struggles</a> that center tribes' sovereignty to act on their own behalf at all times, not just during national crises.</p>
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