SOCHI, Russia — These were supposed to be 'green' games, following on environmentally friendly initiatives in Sydney in 2000 and London in 2012, evidence of the International Olympic Committee’s commitment to preserving local ecology.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee, backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, said these Olympics would have no negative environmental impacts: there would be “zero waste,” with special attention paid to investing in renewable energy sources for the region.
But, like many promises made for these Olympics, this one wasn’t kept.
In reality, Sochi and its surrounding areas have suffered from extensive, and potentially long-term, ecological damage — damage that contaminated water, destabilized soil and hurt air quality.
According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), Olympic construction generated 3.5 billion tons of waste in 2009 alone. In the greater Krasnodar region, Rosprirodnadzor, Russia’s federal supervisor of natural resources found over 50 illegal landfills.
At the peak of construction, environmental activists said, an unnatural smog could be seen on a new road leading to Krasnaya Polyana in the Caucasus Mountains.
Locals experienced extensive property damage from landslides due to unstable soil after trees were uprooted, while drinking water was polluted by garbage from landfills and wood for heating and cooking became nearly impossible to get a hold of.
Venues built on a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park further threatened local endangered plant and animal species — like the Persian leopard, one of the games’ mascots — by eliminating some of their remaining habitat.
A report backed by human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, said turning Sochi into a winter sports mecca was “akin to popularizing igloos on Ibiza.”
Vladimir Kimaev, an environmental activist with Environmental Watch on the North Caucasus, said the government denied a protest event his group was planning — the first such intervention by the government in seven years.
The government pressured the group not to hold its event, Kimaev said, once the Olympic Committee learned it was about ecological issues concerning the Olympics.
“We wanted to hold the meeting but we were refused. The mayor of the city rang me up [twice],” Kimaev said. “According to Olympic laws, these meetings are forbidden. And they claim these [environmental] problems are inter-city problems, not Olympic problems.”
Alexander Popkov, a local lawyer with human rights organization Agora, said it was a struggle to get the government to address Sochi’s environmental issues.
Yvgeny Vitishko, who Popkov represents, is a jailed environmental activist with Environmental Watch. Earlier this week, Vitishko was sentenced to three years in a penal colony for defacing a fence near a “dacha,” or vacation house, built by the region’s governor on protected land.
“There was a court session,” around Feb. 17, Popkov explained. “But we didn’t know about it. It was secret. And we don’t have any information about it and it’s nonsense.”
Vitishko’s imprisonment spurred Environmental Watch’s initial protest event, in collaboration with other groups, and together they pressured the Olympic Committee to address Vitishko’s case.
Among the issues raised were a waste dump at a village called Loo, north of central Sochi, a train tunnel that caused landslides on Cape Vidnyi, further south, landslides on Ternovaya Street in Adler and water contamination in the village of Akhshtyr.
As a result of the mounting pressure, government officials finally agreed to a two-part conference, which was held on Feb. 16 and 17. Fifty officials from different organizations attended — including the prime minister of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation.
“I personally addressed the prime minister of Norway and the head of Joint Olympic Committee,” Kimaev said. “They asked us to raise these questions about [the environment].”
With powerful outside support, the potential scope of the conference topics had broadened, Kimaev said.
“We understand that it was due to the pressure to the Olympic Committee, and the administration of the government, our president [Vladimir Putin] paid attention to these questions,” Kimaev said.
At the conference, residents of Akhshtyr, and other villages whose environments had been battered, voiced their concerns directly to government officials. In turn, Kimaev said, the officials were receptive and eager to help.
In the end, locals, environmental activists and government representatives were able to strike a multi-part deal. At the conclusion of the conference, Kimaev said, “all problems began to be solved.”
The village of Akhshtyr, which experienced heavy dust, noise and pollution from trucks carrying tons of rock for Olympic construction from two quarries above the village, saw the first results.
“They withdrew a license from the organization that took gravel from the quarries,” Kimaev said. “Their works had been stopped at other quarries. The road to Akhshtyr became illegal and they put signs on this road…that forbid big trucks to come here.”
Some of the homes struck by landslides are “now recognized as unsuitable for living,” according to Kimaev. “And the official said now they are ready to give them compensation to build houses, to get land, to fulfill all their commitments.”
Additionally, geologists and other specialists have been brought in to solve many of the problems.
This is a start, but there is still much to be done.
Water in Adler — even the water taken from the center of town and used for drinking — is still “very bad.” And those locals who did not attend the conference, simply could not have their concerns addressed, according to Kimaev.
While a commission was created to help resolve the trouble locals have had in accessing the gas promised to them, some still remain without gas with which to cook or heat their homes.
On Ternovaya Street, in the district of Adler, evidence of the empty promise protrudes from the road. Looking at a stub of thick, black pipe and a taller, thinner pipe poking out of the dirt outside of their home, Astrik and Niva, two locals, laughed.
“They put gas tubes, but there is no gas. The government put gas tubes five months ago, but there is nothing in these tubes,” Astrik said.
Multiple government reports say that people on their street use gas — and not wood — for heat and cooking. Although they do have a gas stove, locals said they still rely on wood because it is cheaper.
Astrik Vareldgyan, 73, and her daughter-in-law, 52-year-old Niva Iliana, live with their husbands, as well as Niva’s son and his wife. Their property was damaged by landslides caused by the construction of a power line for the Olympics.
To make matters worse, they said, helicopters began flying overhead two years ago, shaking trees loose from roots, even though the government knew that compromising the structural integrity of the soil would likely cause more landslides.
Astrik is worried for those who live on a ridge at the top of the hill.
“It is getting worse. Two days ago it was better,” she said, explaining that land on the hillside is still moving. “It was a beautiful forest before, there were lots of mushrooms. There were wild apples, wild pears,” she said, and “very useful trees.”
The trees held the hillside in place, but were uprooted by red-and-white, horizontal-striped electric towers.
Astrik and Niva’s house is cracked on all sides: a cement wall that acts as a terrace is breaking, but still keeping a hillside at bay.
Meanwhile, in Akhshtyr, villagers have complained of landfills filled with garbage — despite government promises before the Olympics. Trash was eventually removed on a new road out of the village, but not before flooding washed refuse into a nearby river.
There are still heaps of trash and small piles of litter. The river looks rancid in parts, flanked by a new railroad leading to Krasnaya Polyana, the Olympic ski resort, and a new highway on the other side.
Two quarries above Akhshtyr are out of use now, but villagers on the road said they thought dust, noise and traffic from the stone-carrying trucks would resume now that the games have ended.
Looking ahead, Kimaev, the activist from Environmental Watch, saw other events that could bring more environmental harm to the area. “There will be new projects after the Olympics, and football matches…[These] also will cause problems connected with the environment.”
And the situation may get worse, Alexander Popkov said. Once the international media leave the city and the hoopla of the Olympics quiets down, he said, “authorities and police will take revenge.”
Even though human rights organizations like Amnesty International and local environmental activists are applying pressure, he said the continued crackdown on protests makes him unsure of whether or not anyone can make a difference.
“I think nothing is effective," he said. "They continue to put people into prison, they continue to spoil nature, and continue to put into prison all activists.”
As for placing blame, environmental groups say the damage is a direct result of the need to adapt for winter events in Sochi’s warm climate. One example of how this was done is the nearly 150,000 square feet of snow stored in case of melting at Olympic venues. They also point to over 200 miles of new roadways, 100 miles of railroad and 100 miles of gas pipeline for the games, all to create “the most compact Winter Games” ever.
Asked how long he thinks the damage will last, Kimaev said the future looks grim.
“The quality of water became threatened. And in 15 years it will be much worse than now,” he said, adding that ten thousand tons of garbage were dumped from quarries in Akhshtyr alone, polluting local water supplies. Rivers must be cleaned, and garbage removed.
The Olympics may have ended, but “we have a lot of work to do now,” Kimaev said.