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Special Guest Albert Kalashnikov on Energy and Environment in Amur Oblast

[Note: We are pleased to welcome this exclusive guest column from the well known Russian ecologist Albert Kalashnikov, who reports from Blagoveshchensk on how hydroelectric power generation stations are causing a public health epidemic and vast environmental damage. – Robert Amsterdam] Report from the Regions: Extreme Energy Zone By Albert Kalashnikov, ecologist, Blagoveshchensk of Amur Oblast There are several large electrical power generating facilities located in Amur Oblast – the Zeya and Bureya Hydroelectric Power Stations, the Raychikhinsk State District Electric Station, and Blagoveshchensk Thermal Power Station No. 1. The generation of electricity is increasing year-to-year at noticeable rates, since certain power stations are still not completely built or are undergoing reconstruction. After completion of all these upgrades, their total generating capacity will increase to 4000 MW. According to forecast, Amur’s hydroelectric power stations are supposed to produce 12 billion kW/h of electricity in 2007, which will comprise around 86% of the total volume. At the same time, production of electricity in the Oblast has exceeded consumption since as far back as 2004. Power generation in 2004 comprised 7.404 billion kW/h, correspondingly an excess of 1.519 billion kW/h (the “surplus” was sold to China). According to official documents, 6 to 6.5 billion kW/h of electricity will be transported outside the boundaries of the Oblast by the year 2010, including 3 billion kW/h to neighboring regions of the Russian Federation. oblast.jpg Photo: Bureya Hydroelectric Power Station All of the power station projects enumerated were designed back in Soviet times, and each design had its own flaws and problems beyond the environmental impact of their operation. For example, the Oblast center turned out to be downwind from Blagoveshchensk Thermal Power Station No. 1, which is coal-fired. As concerns the Zeya and Bureya Hydroelectric Power Stations, these deserve special mention, in order to dispel the myth about “ecological cleanliness” invented by local “professional ecologists”. The formation of the Zeya Reservoir during construction of the dam was accompanied by a change in the parameters of the climate surrounding the territory with an elevation in humidity, especially in the winter period of the year, an increase in the quantity of fogs, a rise in the air temperature (and this is a zone of many years of frost!). The change in the climatic peculiarities of the territories adjacent to the dam, especially the combination during the course of a lengthy time of the year of low temperatures of the environment and elevated humidity, create unfavourable preconditions for the appearance and acceleration of the advance of diseases of the respiratory organs. On the whole, the filling of the Zeya Reservoir increased the morbidity rate 1.4 times. Thus, for the town of Zeya alone, the number of incidents of diseases of the respiratory organs comprised from 385.0 to 548.7 persons per 1000. For Zeya Rayon, the corresponding figures were from 235.9 to 395.3 persons. The rates of increase comprised 42.5% and 68.1%, respectively. At the same time, substantive changes in morbidity did not take place in areas of habitation of the population to which the influence of the Zeya Reservoir did not extend. Also obvious is the sharp increase in the incidence of bronchial asthma among the adult population of the town of Zeya. The prevalence of asthma in the town of Zeya has increased 5 times, while in Amur Oblast as a whole it has increased by nearly 4 times. The engineers at the Zeya Hydroelectric Power Station performed an idle discharge of water from the dam at the end of August 2006 (according to unofficial information, Chinese partners had not bought up all of the volume of electricity that had earlier been planned). Inhabitants of the village of Ovsyanka of Zeya Rayon suffered as a result. Wells were flooded, which impacted the quality of the drinking water, the harvest and stockpiles of firewood were destroyed, residential houses and outbuildings were flooded, a bridge was destroyed, utility lines were damaged. Great damage was caused to the environment in the zones of the Zeya and Bureya Hydroelectric Power Stations and to Amur Oblast as a whole. Forests of the highest category suffered seriously. Tens of thousands of hectares were submerged. The clearing of the forests in preparation for the filling of the reservoirs was carried out indiscriminately, due to the absence of boundaries of the flooding zone of the reservoir forests beyond its boundaries were cut down, that is the watershed-preservation forests of the future reservoirs were partially destroyed. The area of commercial growing stock timber decreased by no less than 10 percent. The bogginess of surrounding territories greatly increased. The list of environmental costs can be continued, but that is not the main objective of the publication. From what has already been cited above it is clear that changes in the ecosystem in the region have an irreversible character. After all, at RAO «UES» [the Russian state electric company—Trans.], they’re planning to build another no less than ten new large hydroelectric power stations and…several “non-ecological” coal-fired thermal power plants in Amur oblast. RAO «UES», like any other monopolist, is striving to make use of the economically expedient fuel-and-energy potential in full. The political situation in the country, expressed in the strictly subordinated vertical of power, is ideally favorable for this. So a system gets created under which optimization of sales will not depend on some kind of limiting factors in the future. This includes everything from changes in federal legislation, to international contracts, to, finally, the notorious reform of the power industry. As concerns the after-effects of the reform, it is more than likely that as a result of it, the consumers of Amur Oblast will be forced to buy more expensive electrical power from Yakytia, while the relatively inexpensive electricity will go for export, bringing excess profits to a small group of “managers”. And such a prospect awaits all of Russia. Hence the conclusion: in the conditions that have been created, electric power tariffs in the country do not depend on the quantity of new generating capacity being brought on stream in the structure of the monopolist. Therefore, any illusions about economic growth in connection with this are baseless. Power stations are being built today in such a quantity because there are surplus funds in the country from oil-and-gas import [sic]. And this is only one of the opportunities to exploit them. It is characteristic that at the same time, budget expenditures are not being recouped even by taxes. Thus, for example, hydroelectric stations being built in Amur Oblast are exempt from the property tax! At the same time, even non-commercial civic organizations of invalids here are forced to pay the given tax, which is levied on the office equipment necessary for them in their work. As concerns electricity tariffs in the region, they increased yet again in 2007 (by 10-11% on average). While in the furnace rooms of the housing-and-utilities complex… steam locomotive boilers of 1940s vintage continue their long service. After all, it’s more reliable to continue using coal than to install electric boilers and fall into servitude to RAO «UES». Unfortunately, it has turned out that there are no independent civic organizations left in the region, with the exception of the Amur Environmental Club «Ukukitkan», that might together be able to effectively withstand the hydroelectric expansion of RAO «UES». All the rest are found to one degree or another under the control of local government officials, who in their turn depend on the power industry. As concerns the “official ecologists” from the various scientific-research institutions of the region, they gratefully serve the interests of RAO «UES» in exchange for subsidies.