Government Sides With Coal Business Against Citizens

Ecology and Business

The Kuznetsk Basin, or Kuzbass, is one of the largest coal deposits in the world. In 2012 the amount of extracted coal in Kuzbass exceeded 200 million tons for the first time. It is planned to further increase the extraction up to 430 million tons by 2030. That being said, the way black coal in Kuzbass is extracted infringes upon the rights of local citizens: the right to life, freedom of movement, inviolability of the home and freedom of opinion. “The government has sided with coal business against citizens”, claims Larisa Koynova.

Open pit, Kuzbass
Teaser Image Caption
Open pit, Kuzbass

In Kuzbass, which is located in the Kemerovo region of Western Siberia, there are 58 mines and 36 open pits. At the same time, the borders of these coal mines are literally only a few steps away from the borders of dozens of villages. Some residential areas get completely wiped off the map for the sake of coal extraction. A decrease in global coal market prices forces businesses to mine using the cheapest technologies, which means extracting coal seams by means of surface mining with minimum environmental costs and without any consequent recultivation (i.e. the restoration of land). The consequences of those cost reductions are fully felt by residents of towns and villages located near the open-pit coal mines.

In April 2018, residents of several communities of the Zagorsk rural settlement in the Novokuznetsk region asked the experts from the West Siberian Testing Center to examine local melt water. The results were shocking: the indicators for suspended solids exceeded the norm by 500–1,000 times. In the garden communities Prudi-2 and Utrennie Zori, the indicators for ammonium were twice as high as the norm. The borders of the coal mines are only a few meters away from residential buildings.

It is not uncommon that people, not being able to cope with such proximity to the pits, are forced to abandon their houses. Perhaps the most famous village that has disappeared to accommodate coal producers’ interests is the Shor village of Kazas (Myskovsky region). That was a village, traditionally inhabited by the Shor people – few in numbers indigenous Turkic people living in the South-Eastern part of the Western Siberia. A resident named Yana Tannagasheva reached out to the United Nations with her request to protect her native area (where her ancestors had lived since year one) from the coal producers’ offensive. She addressed the consultation of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva. However, the mine continues working and the houses of the last Kazas residents unwilling to leave have been burned down. Law enforcement has not yet found out who started the fire. What is more, in order to get to the cemetery to visit relatives’ graves, people now have to get a special permission, as the cemetery is situated on the territory of the mine. Today the Shor people, expelled from the lands of their ancestors, claim that this is a genocide of their people.

The residents of the Rassvet village (Novokuznetsk region) have also been reporting serious problems for a long time already. The limited liability company Coal Energy started open-surface mining there in 2009. For the village, that was already for the third time (the Berezovsky and Bungursky-Severny mines were launched earlier and still continue working there). Such a neighborhood forces the residents to breath coal dust, “enjoy” mile dumps crawling toward their gardens, dodge trucks roaring through the streets and put up with the fact that the walls of their houses shake and the house foundations crumble as a result of explosions in the mines. As a result of mine activity in Rassvet, problems with the water supply have begun: the moisture from aquifers drifts away to the pits, from where (now dirty) it is pumped away again. It is noteworthy that in the sanitary-epidemiological resolution, which sanctions the work of the pit, the Rassvet village is simply not mentioned, as if it were forgotten.

The road to the rural settlement Apanas (Novokuznetsk region) and the nearby villages has been running through mine dumps for many years already. Private cars go side by side with huge mine trucks. There have been cases of deadly accidents. The dumps occasionally catch fire, and at these times all the nearby areas get covered with toxic smoke. There are now almost as many cases of cancer in villages as in industrial cities. One cannot even dream of having clean, organic food in rural areas, even though every house has its own garden in front of it. Meanwhile, the coal pits continue their offensive. Their borders now approach the villages Matyushino, Berezovo, Sosnovka, Targay, Kostenkovo (Novokuznetsk region). Not only plants from the Red Book get under the bucket of the excavator, but also cemeteries and cattle burial sites.

In the village of Kostenkovo a serious scandal has emerged with regard to the anthracic burial site: to their surprise, last fall the residents found out that the land of the cattle burial, which was considered to be infected by anthrax, was being used to expand the mine, and trees were being cut down on its territory. In order to formally conceal the crime, a small pitch of land at the backyard of the cattle house within the border of the settlement was declared a cattle burial site. Obviously, in reality nobody bothered to rebury the animals — “the unknown” simply moved the fence and the warning shields. Several months have passed and the residents of Kostenkovo still do not know where the anthrax really is, while the authorities are playing for time in the hope that the question will soon be forgotten and the problem will disappear. On the Yamal peninsula it was the animals, mostly deer, which suffered from the anthrax, not the people. In Novokuznetsk, however, the population density is higher than in the tundra.

Last fall, in indignation, some village residents started to form an active protest movement. Taking into account that the coal pits destroy not only villages, but also countryside recreation centers and approach holiday country houses, the villagers are actively supported by the residents of Novokuznetsk. They are joined by the towns of Myski, Prokopyevsk, Belovo, Kiselevsk. The people there are just asking for one simple thing: for their constitutional rights to be respected. Meanwhile, the interests of coal producers are often defended by the officials, the police and even the courts. In his official message, Aman Tuleyev, the governor of the Kemerovo region, called people from the dying settlements “bastards” and “pseudo-ecologists.” In response, the protesters made up a slogan: “I am not a bastard, I am a Russian citizen.” Despite the absence of slogans and official requests, the court declared a peaceful inter-villager gathering an unauthorized rally. Administrative charges for participation in this “rally” were brought even against a local parliament member, who could not remain untouched by the problems of his electorate.

At the end of April, when the local authorities had refused to sanction a demonstration in Kemerovo, the residents of the Novokuznetsk region decided to organize single pickets. However, an operation for combating extremism was started in the region in response. Along the whole route from Novokuznetsk to Kemerovo, the road patrol service centers hunted the alleged protesters and detained them for three hours. Almost any text risked being regarded as “extremist material” by law enforcement officials, including the prosecutor’s response to the enquiry, which was being carried by the representatives of the Shor community from the town of Myski.

The confrontation between the Kuzbass residents and the coal business does not end here. Unless the coal producers stop abusing citizens’ constitutional rights, the citizens will continue to fight, since there is no way for retreat — they are all surrounded by dumps and pits.