UPDATE: Massive pollution kills Kamchatka’s marine animals | Polarjournal

The events on Khalatyrsky beach have become a point of contention between state authorities and independent scientists. While the authorities have announced that they have not measured elevated levels of pollutants and have not recorded any signs of pollution in the nearby river, scientists say they do not adhere to the version of toxic algae or the leakage of gas hydrates from seismic activity underwater. Many residents of the region also believe that the authorities are trying to disguise the true cause and extent of the pollution. Most recently, staff from the regional Kamchathydromet had claimed that they had not found any dead animals on the beach, nor any discoloration or other evidence of a disaster. Official involvement of the military is also disputed. There had been no military activity in the area, including on the test and training grounds. Officials who conducted investigations at the landfill did not report elevated levels, but several violations of environmental laws.
WWF Russia suspects that the disaster was not caused by oil products, but by a highly toxic substance that is highly water-soluble. Their investigations on beach sections and satellite images allow them to come to this conclusion.

The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources Rosprirodnadzor denies that oil products are responsible for the massive pollution on Khalatyrsky beach. Other pollutants were not detected in the water samples as well. Dmitry Kobylkin, the agency’s director, said only insignificant amounts of iron and phosphates had been discovered. Vladimir Solodow, the governor of the region, who had reported increased phenols and other pollutants just a few days ago, also struck a different tone. No elevated concentrations of harmful substances were measured on the river, which had been considered the source of the pollution, he told the media.
Kobylkin and his agency say the mass extinction of marine animals and human health damage are due to a natural phenomenon. Animal and soil samples have been sent to Moscow for further analysis. Scientists from the Far Eastern Russian University and the Russian Academy of Science are also involved in the research. However, there is a lack of independent experts from non-governmental organisations.
On the social media of those who had reported on the pollution on the spot, the statements caused outrage and head shaking. Greenpeace Russia, which seems to be on the spot, has spoken to the local population. But there has been no response to the latest developments.

The map shows the location of the decommissioned chemical waste dump at the foot of the Avachinsky volcano, which lies just a few kilometers northeast of the regional capital Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky. The volcano is still considered active and last erupted in 2008.

The pollution of Khalatyrsky beach has caused consternation and uproar worldwide, especially on social media. In addition to the extent of the disaster, the fact that the region has been heavily polluted for weeks has caused also some violent reactions in Russia and abroad.
So far, the cause was considered either the dumping of residual oil on ships along the coast or a military training ground located on a river. However, further research has now shown that a decommissioned dump at the foot of the Avachinsky volcano could also be considered. This landfill, which was closed in 2010, was used for the storage of chemical waste and was not dismantled after it had been decommissioned. The proximity of the landfill to the river, which had already brought yellow-coloured water into the sea at the beginning of September, and the substances with their massively elevated values speak for this. However, the investigation is still ongoing.

Along the beach of Khalatyrsky east of the regional capital lie the remains of dead marine animals, washed up by yellow-colored waves of the Bering Sea. People who had bathed and surfed in the waves also complain about massive health consequences. The cause is not yet known. Photo: Kristy Rozenberg via Instagram

The Kamchatka peninsula on Russia’s east coast is one of the most popular natural wilderness areas. Thanks to the numerous rivers and the volcanoes that run through the interior of the peninsula, vast amounts of nutrients are washed into the Bering Sea, which promotes an enormous abundance of marine life. But now environmental organizations are sounding the alarm bells: a gigantic environmental disaster has washed ashore numerous marine animals to a beach northeast of the capital Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky, and people who have visited the beach complain of massive damage to their health.

Visitors to the beach, which is popular with the public, complained of sore throats, visual impairments, fever, nausea and vomiting and headaches, as reported by The Siberian Times. Eye damages like corneal burns have increased massively, Greenpeace Russia also reports on its website.

“The entire sea floor is littered with corpses of marine animals. All our underwater beauties are now grey-yellow. The fish look like they’re cooked.”

Statement via Greenpeace Russia

These complaints already prevailed three weeks ago. But now there are hundreds and hundreds of dead sea urchins, fish, squid and mussels in the black volcanic sand of the beach. In addition, according to observers, sea lions hardly submerged, remained more at the surface of the water and were very apathetic. Divers who have ventured into the depths of the polluted region also report countless dead marine animals on the bottom and grey-yellow discoloration of the water. “Today the boys dived and appeared with tears in their eyes. The entire sea floor is littered with corpses of marine animals. All our underwater beauties are now grey-yellow. The fish look like they’re cooked.”

The video posted on Instagram by Kristy_Rozenberg shows the extent of dead marine life. In addition to sea urchins and mussels, more mobile animals such as octopuses and fish have been washed up also in masses. Video: Kristy Rozenberg via Instagram

“The pollution of the water area near Khalaktyrsky beach has already led to the death of marine animals and human poisoning.”

Vasily Yablokov, Head of Greenpeace Russia

The causes of the damage to health and the environment are not yet known. But initial investigations by the regional authorities have indicated a massive increase in phenol concentrations and other petroleum products. Alarmed by the reports, the national commissioner for the Russian Far East, Yuri Trutnev, called for a comprehensive investigation into the cause of the pollution. Greenpeace Russia has also commissioned the National Environmental Agency Rospotrebnadzor, the Industrial Authority, the Ministry of Defence and the Prosecutor General’s Office to closely investigate the incidents surrounding the pollution. The head of Greenpeace Russia, Vasily Yablokov, calls: “The pollution of the water area near Khalaktyrsky beach has already led to the death of marine animals and the poisoning of humans. The unique nature of Kamchatka, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is under threat. Identify the source of the pollution and take the necessary measures.”

Alarmed by the complaints of surfers, divers and visitors, the regional environmental authorities have taken samples. In doing so, they found massively elevated levels of pollutants as known from the oil industry. Picture: Vladimir Sokolov via Instagram

For Greenpeace Russia, it is clear that the cause is not a natural phenomenon. Since the beginning of September, yellow masses of water have been washed into the sea by a river, which can even be seen on satellite images. North of the river lies a military training area, which is now also being considered by the authorities as a possible cause of the pollution. For the local population, pollution is definitely a disaster and people do not expect a factual and clear investigation: “Knowing how the system works and how these kinds of questions are being covered up, we must do everything in our power to properly save the ocean and protect us from disaster in the future,” one person wrote on Instagram.

Kamchatka is a well-known and popular peninsula at the eastern end of Russia. The region, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, was closed to civilians and foreigners until the 1990s. Since its opening, volcanoes, fish richness and an almost intact nature have attracted numerous tourists to the approximately 1,200 km long peninsula. The affected Khalatyrsky beach is located just a few kilometres east of the regional capital Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky, where most of the population lives.

Russia has experienced several major environmental disasters in recent months, many of which have only become known in retrospect. This includes the Norilsk disaster, in which 21,000 tonnes of fuel spilled from a tank into the waters and caused an ecological disaster. It is true that environmental authorities and nature conservation organisations are trying to improve the environmental situation. But a huge and sluggish state apparatus and the interdependence of politics and economy often hinder work and corresponding successes.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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