RUSSIA

In Russia, locals rise up against stench of landfill

The landfill looms on the edge of the town, obstructing the view from people's houses.
The landfill looms on the edge of the town, obstructing the view from people's houses.

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Residents of Kuchino, a town 10 kilometres outside of Moscow, have launched a protest against an ever-growing landfill on the outskirts of the town that they say smells disgusting and is causing health problems. The landfill is so big that it can be seen from space.

The landfill was created in 1964, but complaints from locals have amplified over the past 10 years as the landfill has continued to grow. Federal legislation prohibits the presence of solid domestic waste within a built-up area. In 2014, authorities closed 21 of 39 landfills in the region – with the waste from different towns in the region now being directed to the Kuchino landfill.

Debris fills the air around the landfill. Photo from website devoted to closing the landfill.

The tipping point came on June 15, when a person from Kuchino spoke to President Vladimir Putin about the problem live on air, during one of the Kremlin’s annual broadcasts where citizens can phone in with their problems and questions. Kuchino local Yelena Mikhailenko told Putin via a live link that the situation in the town was “simply unbearable”. She continued, “Fires occur on the landfill daily; it is impossible to breathe, and there is a constant release of gases, methanethiol and sulphur dioxide. They become converted to hydrogen sulphide, and we breathe it. Many suffer from nausea and vomiting all the time. It is unbearable.”

Putin promised to fix the situation as soon as possible – but not without first swiping at the people who chose to build there. “By the way, I see that you are standing by a building that was clearly built less than 50 years ago. Someone decided to build housing near a waste disposal site that has been there for 50 years.” He continued, “Nevertheless, […] it is our duty to respond.”

This map shows the location of the landfill, very close to the town.

Ektarina Ivanova (not her real name) lives very close to the landfill – she can see it from her window.

“It’s only 25km away from the Kremlin – do they want to breathe the same air as us?”

I live in an old house that we bought about five years ago. We didn’t know about the landfill. There was not much information about it. The people who bought new houses here did not know about it. My neighbours say that the landfill was closed for some time in order to try to sell the houses. No one wants to live next to it.

Photo sent from another Observer who does not wish to be named shows the view of the landfill from his apartment building.

Before I didn’t notice it, but now I can see it. I can smell it. A year ago, I was pregnant and that’s when the smell got really bad. The smell is because of chemicals, not only because of waste.

There is also a waste burning plant. In our country we don’t really sort our rubbish. We only have one type of bin, we can’t recycle. So everything goes together. The smell is really awful. I can’t differentiate between the smell coming from the burning plant and the landfill. It hurts in your throat, in your lungs, and it’s almost always at night – when you can’t call anyone to complain. It must mean they do something with this rubbish at night. Maybe they burn it or treat it, I don’t know, I’m not an expert.

Photos from this anti-landfill website show the smoke released into the atmosphere.

I haven’t had any health problems. But other people say that there’s a higher risk of cancer here. My daughter coughs more and gets ill more often here than she did when we lived elsewhere.

“The authorities do nothing”

The authorities say that it’s legal, that there’s no smell, that it’s psychological, and that we are just complaining. We’ve had some meetings with our region executive, who came here after the live broadcast with Putin. He says he came here to speak with people but we didn’t know he was coming. It was just a media opportunity – he came just so that he could say he had met with residents.

Thick plumes of smoke rise into the air from the landfill. Photo from anti-landfill website.

They said they would close the plant in 2014 but it’s now 2017 and they’ve made no steps to close it. Now they’re saying they will close it by 2019. Even if they do, this is something we are dealing with every day. What are we meant to do for two years?

“We have the right to breathe fresh air – why should we have to fight for this?”

I’m not political. I need only one thing: fresh air for me and my family. I try to lead a healthy life; why do I have to breathe this bad air? They say that there is no other place to put the landfill. But is this my problem? Is this my children’s problem? It’s not even 25 kilometres from the Kremlin, this dump. By 2019 they will breathe the same air as us. Do they really want to breathe this air on Red Square?

We write letters to different ministries, different people, to the Kremlin, everywhere, but we only get answers that there is nothing they can do or that it is not their problem. They are trying to pretend it is a small problem. But there are hundreds of people fighting against it. [Editor’s note: In one interview, the mayor of Kuchino, Yevgeny Zhirkov, said that he had received only a handful of complaints]. We only need fresh air, is that too much to ask? Our constitution tells us that we have the right to breathe fresh air – why should we have to fight for this?

A town hall meeting with locals, the mayor and the minister of the environment was held on June 21 to discuss the landfill. The authorities announced that the landfill would be closed on December 31, 2018 – a response that residents are not happy with. However, in the face of further protests, Vladimir Putin made an announcement only a few hours later declaring that the landfill would be closed within a month.

Update: It would appear that a live broadcast with the president can actually get things done. After years of protest and complaints, local residents have won the battle - the Kuchino landfill has been officially closed.

Photo sent from an Observer showing the big 'Closed' sign adorning the gates to the landfill.