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How Kaliningrad was left holding 160,000 gallons of what looks to be toxic waste A mysterious Russian company ditches hundreds of barrels of ‘cleaner’ at a commercial sea port

Meduza
The Kaliningrad commercial sea port
The Kaliningrad commercial sea port
Igor Zarembo / TASS

Meduza has learned that more than 2,500 barrels of a certain substance registered as a cleaning agent were delivered to a commercial sea port in Kaliningrad in 2016. After a few months, the cargo’s owners formally asked local officials for permission to dump the barrels containing the chemicals. When the government refused, the owners simply disappeared, without ever paying a cent of the cargo-storage rent. Environmentalists suspect this was the plan all along: a scheme to leave toxic waste in Russia. In a special report for Meduza, Vadim Khlebnikov, the chief editor of Rugrad.eu, learned more about this story.

In early 2016, the “SM-Trading” company, registered in Smolensk, transferred almost 600,000 liters (roughly 160,000 gallons) of toxic waste to the Kaliningrad region. According to the paperwork for the transfer, the substance was an “emulsifying cleaning agent for cleaning metalwork.” The substance was identified as Geminex G30.

For months, more than 2,500 barrels of the stuff stood idle at the Kaliningrad sea port, until “SM-Trading” filed a request to dump the chemicals in one of the two sites controlled by the regional government. Officially, the company said it wanted to withdraw the goods from circulation. According to the paperwork submitted to Russia’s federal environmental watchdog (Meduza obtained access to these documents), transporting the barrels again could risk leakages. 

The authorities refused to approve the disposal of the chemicals without the consent of Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage, which rejected SM-Trading’s request in December 2016, after officials determined that the substance imported to Kaliningrad contained long-term toxicity and posed a danger to the environment, especially if dumped in large quantities. To make matters worse, the local site where SM-Trading wanted to dump its barrels has no disposal facility; it’s a former sand quarry converted into a landfill that officials registered as a waste disposal facility in an unsuccessful effort to legalize the site.

Without permission to dump the barrels, SM-Trading abandoned its cargo at the Kaliningrad sea port, located not far from the center of the city, where it’s remained ever since. Vladislav Dorofeev, the port’s general director, told Meduza that the cargo’s owner simply disappeared, without ever paying a kopeck in rent. Meanwhile, the cargo’s contents are beginning to raise concerns: some of the barrels have started to swell.

Dorofeev says the port's authorities have already appealed to the local transport police and to the Federal Security Service, without any results. “The only thing I know is that the purchase price of one unit [of this product] in Poland is 15 zloty [$4], but the declared price is about 100 euros [$114]. I get the impression that, behind this whole story, some big money made its way abroad,” Dorofeev says. “So what is this stuff? Trash? Waste? Or some cleaning agent? … Now the cargo’s owner is running from the transport police and from us.”

Dorofeev says the port’s security service conducted a cursory analysis of the shipping documents and speculated that the “cleaning” solution in the containers could be raw materials for producing synthetic narcotics.

The Kaliningrad sea port later won a lawsuit against SM-Trading in a local arbitration court, and the company now owes the port more than 9 million rubles ($152,000) in storage expenses. At two hearings during the trial, a man named D. A. Ponomarev even appeared in court to represent SM-Trading, though he raised no objections and didn't file a single motion. Meduza was unable to reach Ponomarev for a comment.

Founded in 2010, SM-Trading lists its primary activity as the sale of fuel. According to 2015 data from “Contour-Focus,” however, SM-Trading never recorded any income or spending. The company purchased the chemicals now marooned in Kaliningrad from a Polish firm called “Roca Petrol,” which in turn belongs to the subsidiary of a company based in the United Arab Emirates.

Before April 2017, SM-Trading belonged to a man named Evgeny Tseluev, until the company re-registered as the property of Roca Petrol — the same Polish firm that supplied the 160,000 gallons of “cleaner.” Meduza was unable to reach either Tseluev or Roca Petrol for comment. In paperwork submitted to Russian regulators, SM-Trading’s contact information lists a telephone number for a company representative identified only as “Dmitry.” That number has been disconnected. 

SM-Trading isn’t the only business registered in Evgeny Tseluev’s name. In 2015, he bought “Service,” another fuel company — this one based in Kaliningrad. In the early 2000s, “Service” built gas stations, but it had ceased all operations by the mid-2010s, according to Sergey Puzik, the company’s former owner. “I was just selling an empty company, so I didn’t have to deal with it anymore, to avoid a zero balance,” Puzik told Meduza, explaining that he only met Tseluev once, when closing the sale. Puzik says he doesn’t know why Tseluev bought his company.

In paperwork submitted to Russian regulators by SM-Trading (Meduza obtained access to these documents), the company indicated that the original supplier of the Geminex G30 was a Polish business called “Inwex.” But there’s almost nothing published about “Geminex G30” on the Internet, and adding the word “Inwex” to search queries turns up just a few websites advertising the sale of a “cleaner.” One of these sites describes roughly 97,000 liters (25,600 gallons) of Inwex-manufactured Geminex G30 that was “shipped back to Poland” in 2016 “due to fear of confiscation.” Inwex did not respond to Meduza’s request for comment.

One of the first groups to draw the public’s attention to the chemicals now abandoned in Kaliningrad was the Russian branch of Greenpeace, which says the cargo still wasn’t paid for, when it arrived at the sea port, according to the official paperwork. Based on this discovery, Greenpeace says it’s likely that the cargo was transferred to Russia not for sale, but for disposal. The organization suspects that the barrels contain toxic waste, and Greenpeace activists have appealed to the Federal Security Service, the Federal Customs Service, and the Attorney General, requesting an investigation.

Natalia Kadantseva, a representative for Kaliningrad’s customs service, told Meduza that the chemicals were indeed imported into the region, but they were later slated for re-export, “insofar as there weren't any documents.” In other words, the barrels should be sent back, “but the cargo’s owner has disappeared,” Kadantseva says, exasperated.

Kaliningrad’s government says it first learned about this issue from Meduza. Alexander Shenderyuk-Zhidkov, the region’s acting vice premier, told us that the state and the police intend to find those responsible for abandoning the chemicals, “forcing” them to remove the cargo for “subsequent disposal at a toxic waste landfill.”

Russian report by Vadim Khlebnikov in Kaliningrad, translation by Kevin Rothrock

Meduza would like to thank Greenpeace Russia for help with preparing this story