Citizens and Military Defeat a Landfill Russia's military excercise near Rostov-on-Don in July. Local command refused permission for the building of a controversial waste site near an airport. Photo: Press office of the South Military Command

Citizens and Military Defeat a Landfill

Local residents did manage to close the landfill in the Leventsovka area of Rostov-on-Don, thank to decisive help from Russia’s military. As a result the site currently has only a temporary status and is being prepared for complete closure. Local activists also managed to move the site of a future waste recycling plant, which was initially planned to be built in dangerous proximity to their homes. The public campaign against it gained the attention of the city’s authorities, but it was Russia’s Military that sealed the landfill’s fate and set the final location of the future waste recycling plant.

The waste management situation in Rostov Oblast is far from favourable, and a comprehensive strategy is required to deal with it. The local minister of public services states that the region has about 300 legal and illegal landfills, with the latter prevailing. The minister also states that the region produces over 1.6 million tonnes of solid household waste annually, about 355 kg per capita. Almost all of this waste is simply dumped at landfills.

The landfill at Leventsovka has existed for over 20 years. Maksim Shtakhanov, a local historian, says that waste from all around the city was dumped here back in the early 1990s. It was clear that the practice could not last forever, but nothing changed. The city grew steadily, and the dumping of waste continued. 

In the late 2000s, the surrounding area saw massive development. The first residential high-rises appeared in 2008; population numbers then quickly grew, reaching 16,000 people today. And along with residential blocks, the Leventsovka landfill has also grown over the last decade. Though its operational life ended in 2014 upon reaching its maximum capacity, it continued functioning. The growing residential area has continuously approached the landfill, with distances between them less than one kilometre in some places.

According to careful estimates, the landfill already contains five million tonnes of waste, and its area has reached 10,000 square meters. About 300 trucks full of waste arrive at the landfill daily, which amounts to 66,000 tonnes of waste every month.

A smell of burning and decomposing waste, and sometimes smoke from the smouldering landfill, are regularly present in the residential areas. Strong winds from the open steppe disperse the smells throughout the area. Local residents note that the smells have been growing stronger and more constant since 2015; now the landfill stinks even in calm weather. People often complain about feeling ill, and allergic reactions frequently appear in both children and adults. The locals have filed numerous complaints to various authorities, demanding they check the air quality.

Nadezhda Zheleznyak, a local activist, says that an expert assessment demanded by local residents showed massive overshooting of legal thresholds for harmful and carcinogenic substances (benzene, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, tetrachloromethane, hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, etc.) in the air. The level of hydrogen sulphide was three times greater than the upper permissible threshold, while the level of benzene exceeded it by 56 times.

After the summer of 2018, with the air especially rich in smoke from burning waste, local residents learned that a waste recycling plant would be built next to the landfill–and their neighbourhood. They refused to believe the official statements that the plant would not burn any waste. Then they decided to protest.

Moreover, no one promised that the new plant would mean that the landfill would be closed, which was the locals’ main demand. Young families, making up a large share of the population, became the driving force behind the protests. People had bought affordable housing here in the hope that the landfill would be closed.

Mortgaged apartment with landfill smell

One couple, Ekaterina and Dmitry Karachinets, tell us that they have lived in Leventsovka since August 2016. “Last summer [2017] we first noticed a smell from the landfill, but, frankly speaking, it didn’t bother us much”, Ekaterina Karachinets states. “This April [2018] we moved to a larger apartment in this neighbourhood. About a month later, I started feeling the unpleasant smell constantly”, she complains. 

News of the future waste recycling plant shocked the couple. “We were surprised, to say the least. We have a 30-year mortgage, and we don’t know what to do. We like the neighbourhood, but the environmental situation frightens us. We strongly oppose the plant, as we are unsure if it will be constructed and operated according to the norms.”

The family of Evgenia Nezhizhimova also has a mortgaged apartment in the area. “In 2013, with my husband and our small son, we purchased a mortgaged apartment here in Leventsovka. In 2018, we had our daughter Vitalina. We hoped to find our happiness here. But today we learned the awful news about the future plant. We bought our apartment, unaware about this landfill nearby. So I couldn’t even realise the source of this awful smell. Now we are truly frightened about our children’s health. I believe that our country has plenty of space to accommodate all the necessary landfills and waste recycling plants. How could they be so close to a place where many young families live? This is unacceptable.”

Waste recycling facility in addition to landfill

Leventsovka residents at a protest on December 23, 2018. Posters say: “Kushnarev [Rostov-on-Don mayor], build a plant [incinerator] in front of your window!”, “Remove the landfill from the Rostov-on-Don master plan”, “We say “NO” to waste genocide”. Photo: Vladislav Ryazantsev

To treat the landfill waste, it was decided to build a new recycling plant, the largest one in the region, on the same site. The logistics would indeed be very convenient. However, the planners forgot to consult with the residents of the nearby densely-built neighbourhood. When they found out about the plan, the outraged residents carried out a series of protest actions. In 2018, they held two large-scale rallies against the construction of the waste recycling plant and the future operation of the landfill. The rallies gathered about 1,000 people–quite a large number for Rostov-on-Don. This finally attracted the attention of local authorities. Activists also visited other public rallies, holding banners against the landfill. Protesters noted the strange successive extensions given to keep the landfill in operation: although its operational life ended in 2014, it was extended numerous times instead of being shut down and allowing land reclamation to commence.

In addition to public rallies, the residents petitioned online. One petition was created on the local outlet Aktivny Rostovchanin, demanding the landfill be closed and a ban be imposed on the construction of the waste recycling plant next to Leventsovka. Another petition on Change.org was signed by 3,800 people. Both petitions drew a wide response by local media, but not by local authorities.

It is worth mentioning that not all media were supportive in their responses: some of them openly ridiculed the residents protesting the landfill, underreported the number of protesters, and broadcast only the position of local authorities.

In its turn, Chisty Gorod, the limited liability company that operated the landfill and planned to build the plant, blamed the activists for “spreading misinformation”. It stated that the plant was not intended for burning waste but for “a new automated sorting facility”.

Veto by the military

Help came unexpectedly by way of military unit No. 41497, which banned any construction in the buffer zone of Tsentralny airfield. The military had already expressed concerns about the possible influx of birds to the landfill. This threat made it possible to ban the construction of the waste recycling facility in Leventsovka and speed up closure of the landfill.

The local environmental prosecutor’s office also finally reacted, but only when the protests were at their peak. For the last year and a half Chisty Gorod had not provided Rospotrebnadzor with any data on the operational control of the landfill’s sanitary conditions, and there were multiple violations of sanitary norms: The waste accumulation area was not protected from wind or elements; it lacked any system for collection or decontamination of filtrate; the existing installations were buried with waste; and no ditches existed for rain or flood water. This all resulted in a dozen new administrative cases against Chisty Gorod. 

It was also revealed that the company had illegally squatted on some 10,000 square metres of land to expand the landfill. The squatting resulted in another four new cases per Article 7.1 of the Russian Administrative Code. The prosecutor’s office promised to oversee and report all actions taken to address all of Christy Gorod’s violations.

Finally, in late 2018, local authorities made a decision to cancel the construction of the waste recycling plant in Leventsovka and extend the landfill operation. The extension was described as “temporary”, a projected 11 months, and the landfill area was further expanded by five hectares with no plans for reclamation. Local activists expressed their outrage with such a compromise decision.

Authorities in dialogue with locals

A public hearing was held in October 2018, and a group of activists from Leventsovka were invited to participate. The hearing revealed a new perspective on the landfill problem and discussed the overall regulation of land use and development in Sovetsky District, of which Leventsovka is a part. Local authorities stated that the landfill problem was largely attributed to the city’s general development plan, approved 11 years ago. 

The plan prescribing land use scenarios is quite difficult to change, as it is governed by multiple regulations all the way up to the Federal Ministry. The area in question is allocated for a municipal waste landfill, thus processing, disposal, storage and decontamination of municipal waste are all allowed there. Amending the general development plan is a complicated procedure, and city authorities cannot simply change the plan at the demand of a group of residents.

At the same hearing, local residents noted that the landfill is located on high ground; its filtrate flows to low areas and contaminates the Seversky Donets River, which flows to the Taganrog Bay of the Sea of Azov. Thus, the activists explained, the Leventsovka landfill impacts a vast area well beyond their neighbourhood. Moreover, the landfill is sprawling into the protective zones of cultural heritage sites. Very close by are the archaeological excavations of Leventsovka Fortress, part of Leventsovka Archaeological Park. This is the oldest fortress in the whole of Eastern Europe. So the landfill impacts not only the environment, but also the country’s historical heritage.

In February and March 2019, the landfill appeared in the news once again, as it had become a frequent source of smoke. Local residents called the fire service to complain about fires at the landfill, but they received only the answer that using water to extinguish the fires  is impossible, as it will cause only more dangerous smoke. Social media are packed with photos from Leventsovka residents, displaying how the landfill and its smoke have become a part of the local landscape.

“Those fires make up an interesting story. For many years, the landfill was frequented by homeless people who burned wires and other waste to extract something of value; yet, large-scale fires almost never occurred. Suddenly, since January [2019], the landfill started catching fire almost every week; this occurs in its older part. On April 1, we visited the site and inspected everything; we saw no smouldering, yet soon the landfill was on fire again. How can this happen? It’s a question for the landfill operators. We contacted the environmental prosecutor’s office, the emergency services–they reacted at first, quenched the fires, but new fires appear too frequently”, says Aleksey Bereshpalov, a local activist.

In early April, it was revealed that Chisty Gorod had appealed to the court demanding 28 million roubles from the city’s authorities for “providing wrong information” prior to leasing out the land for the plant.

Plant cancelled, landfill’s fate unclear

The waste processing plant was finally relocated to Myasnikovsky District outside the city limits. However, the plant is not welcome there either: the area already has a radioactive waste depository. The residents of a nearby village have already submitted a petition stating that the waste processing plant cannot be legally placed there.

As of this writing, the old landfill is still operating; it will remain “temporary” until late 2019. It is unclear whether this is the last temporary extension, or if the landfill sprawl will continue. Bereshpalov says that the authorities refuse to give a clear answer.

“They did not present us any documents, any guarantees, though we already applied for them back in December”, says Aleksey. “Moreover, they [the authorities] haven’t dissolved the leasing contract, and Chisty Gorod is now filing a lawsuit against them. They told us that they would cover all the waste piles with clay and start dumping waste in an old pit, while they are preparing a new site. However, by now a quarter of the old waste pile, the main landfill they stopped using in late 2018, is left open. And they haven’t covered what was dumped during the autumn. The allegedly clean new site in the disused pit looks even worse than this one–no waterproof layers they promised, no layers of clay, just a huge pile of waste.” However, local residents still hope for success and are going to keep an eye on the “temporary” landfill.

The struggle against Leventsovka landfill opened a new page in Rostov-on-Don environmental activism. The change of the landfill status to “temporary” and relocation of the waste processing plant are major victories won by local residents. Environmental problems are no longer simply a concern of a bunch of mere enthusiasts but draw the attention of a far-wider audience. Public rallies on environmental issues are no more an “exotic” endeavour for progressives in Moscow. They have become a well-known and readily available method of informing the authorities about local problems, and the residents of Leventsovka are determined to continue the struggle for their neighbourhood.

The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU and implemented by BlueLink and the Environmental Rights Centre BELLONA (www.bellona.ru) in 2018-2019. The project was supported by the EU– Russia Civil Society Forum (www.eu-russia-csf.org) and its donors. The content of the article is the responsibility of its author and may not reflect the donors’ point of view.

The original article “Ростовские активисты добились закрытия свалки” was published on bellona.ru on 14.05.2019. Translated from Russian for publication on bluelink.info.

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