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Moscow's trash uprising An ecological catastrophe is unfolding around the Russian capital, and locals are fighting back

Meduza
Residents of Kolomna block the road leading into the “Volovichi” trash dump. March 27, 2018
Residents of Kolomna block the road leading into the “Volovichi” trash dump. March 27, 2018
Marina Zlunitsina

Since early 2018, the people of Volokolamsk have been organizing protests against a local trash dump that has been spewing noxious fumes into their city, located just outside Moscow. The demonstrations against the “Yadrovo” local landfill got especially tense in mid-March, when dozens of school children in the area fell ill and needed medical attention, apparently due to the effects of air pollution leaked by the garbage dump. After an embarrassing confrontation with angry parents at a local hospital, the head of the Volokolamsk district government was fired, and regional officials promised to close the landfill and end the health crisis within the next few months. The “Yadrovo” dump isn’t the Moscow region’s only controversial landfill, however, and there are several other “garbage riots” simmering in towns outside the city.

The Kolomna district: “We’re like second-class citizens”

In Kolomna, residents have been protesting against the “Volovichi” trash dump by blocking the road and refusing to let garbage trucks from the capital enter the compound. On the morning of Sunday, March 25, about 150 people assembled outside the landfill. For the past three days, they’ve maintained a constant presence there, working in shifts to keep out more trash. People even stay there through the night, where temperatures have dropped into the single digits. On Monday evening, more than 400 people joined the protest. Many of them came straight from work. Police officers monitored the situation, but made no arrests.

“Outside it’s raining and sleeting. We need raincoats and big umbrellas to cover the food. People continue to stand up for their lives, their homes, and their town. Those who stood guard all night are waiting to be relieved,” wrote members of the “NO to the Kolomna dump” Vkontakte group.

A local woman named Irina told Meduza that her group blocked the entrance to more than 20 dump trucks. She says a powerful stench started coming from the landfill overnight, and residents miles away said they could smell it. “Children have been feeling sick. They go around in masks with headaches,” she explained. Kolomna district officials, who told the magazine RBC that police are letting through some of the dump trucks, deny that there’s any unusual smell in the area.

On February 11, 2018, roughly 3,000 people in Kolomna protested against the construction of a new waste treatment center in the area, and demanded the closure of the “Volovichi” landfill. At the start of the winter, residents in nearby towns began complaining about noxious smells coming from landfill. People worry that the problem will get worse during the summer. The district has struggled with garbage since April 2017, when the amount of trash sent to Kolomna suddenly spiked. In the past year, “Volovichi” has received five times more waste than it was designed to process.

On Tuesday, March 27, the protesters got a visit from Denis Lebedev, the head of the Kolomna district, but his timing annoyed them: he made sure to come during the work day, when there were relatively few people stationed outside the landfill. Part of this meeting was recorded on video:

“Maybe we can help you with something? Right now?” one woman asked Lebedev.

“Well you’ve already helped… You’ve gathered here,” the city official said, waving at everyone. “I can only tell you one thing: if you remain here like this, it will only lead to one thing: I might be removed [from my position].”

“That’s a great idea!” the crowd answers.

“We’re like second-class citizens! Why are we any worse than others? Why are we worse than Muscovites?” the woman asked.

“Our civic group worked with you for six months, but it was for nothing!” another man chimed in.

“I’m standing here now and I’m not going anywhere,” Lebedev told them.

“And where were you the night before last? Asleep? People here were freezing!”

“Listen, I was born here!” the mayor answered, suddenly quite loudly.

The awkward encounter ended with a plan to meet again on Tuesday evening, when more people would be present.

Update: On Wednesday, March 28, riot police started dispersing the protesters in Kolomna, detaining several individuals. “People are still showing up, and the scariest thing is that there are a lot of children here. People are coming up to cars with children not older than four,” an eyewitness told the newspaper Vedomosti.

The Klin district: “It hurts your eyes and it’s impossible to breathe”

The newspaper Kommersant reported on March 27 that residents were picketing the “Aleksinsky Quarry” landfill in the Klin district. For the past five years, the garbage dump in Klin has been receiving and processing not just local trash, but also waste from surrounding areas. People in town say the landfill started filling Klin with its stench back in the summer of 2016: “It hurts your eyes and it’s basically impossible to breathe, even in a room with all the windows shut tightly.” Locals say they endure nausea and pounding headaches every evening.

People in Klin now say they’re worried that the Aleksinsky Quarry will be getting even more garbage, as regional officials move to close the Yadrovo landfill in Volokolamsk. They already faced this problem once, last year, when the authorities in Balashikha shut down the “Kuchino” waste treatment center.

The Tarussa district: “A secret waste-processing enterprise”

According to locals, a new trash dump started operating in Tarussa in February 2018, and nobody is sure who owns it. A petition on Change.org, which currently has more than 6,400 signatures, claims that the smell of garbage is potent and persistent, even a thousand feet from the landfill, and even in subfreezing temperatures.

On Monday, March 26, Tarussa held a second protest against the waste treatment center (the first took place on March 20 and attracted about 800 people). Demonstrators used a hammer to smash the lock on the gates leading into the landfill. Tarussa Mayor Avil Demkin reportedly accompanied the protesters, promising to start removing trash from the area and blocking the road to garbage trucks. Demkin said the city can’t actually close the facility because it is privately owned. In photographs from the event, people can be seen holding their noses against the foul stench.

Tuchkovo: “Soon everything will start to break down”

On Tuesday, March 27, about 500 people in the Ruza district reportedly turned out to protest against local trash mismanagement. Residents told the magazine RBC that dump trucks carrying garbage have been coming daily to a quarry near the town. According to local deputy Maxim Uvarov, the waste is from Moscow and other nearby cities. He says the Moscow regional government issued a permit to convert the quarry into a landfill without any special terms or conditions.

According to the regional government’s press office, what had been authorized was an enclosed industrial facility, but this work was halted on the morning of March 24, when inspectors discovered that the building site was receiving shipments of municipal waste, in addition to construction supplies. Officials say work crews are on the ground sorting these materials and removing them from the area.

The Voskresensk district: Blocking the road

On Sunday, March 25, people in the town of Svistyagino in the Moscow region’s Voskresensk district blocked the road into a waste incineration plant that’s still under construction. Local activist Alexey Kholkin told RBC that the facility is being built illegally.

Video recorded by activist Alexey Kholkin showing demonstrators blocking the road into a waste incineration plant in Svistyagino
Alexey Kholkin / YouTube

New waste incineration plants are planned in the Moscow region’s Voskresensk, Solnechnogorsk, Noginsk, and Naro-Fominsk districts. The contract for their construction went to a company called “Alternative Generating Company 1,” which is owned by a subsidiary of Rostech. The facilities are supposed to be up and running by 2022.

In November 2017, several dozen people in the Voskresensk district temporarily blocked the Novoryazanskoe highway outside the town of Stepanshchino, protesting against the waste treatment center in Svistyagino. Trying to avoid a citation from police, the demonstrators didn’t stand still in the middle of the road, but instead walked continuously back and forth in turns at a pedestrian crosswalk. Vitaly Chekhov, the aptly named head of the Chekhov district government, described the activists as “a protest-charged group of people who travel from town to town throughout the Moscow region.”

The Naro-Fominsk district: One-man pickets

On March 10, activists in the Naro-Fominsk district picketed along the Kiev highway against the construction of a waste incineration plant near the town of Mogutovo. People held up signs criticizing the Moscow regional government, calling for the Moscow governor’s resignation and a stop to the new garbage dump’s construction.

According to Anastasia Koshkina, the local head of the political party Yabloko, traffic police arrived at the protest within 20 minutes and informed the group that it was staging an unauthorized public assembly. Nine demonstrators were escorted into police cars and they were later released without charges.

Story by Taisiya Bekbulatova, translation by Kevin Rothrock