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Bely Island: back to nature

Bely Island: back to nature

20.09.2012 — Analysis

In late August an environmental expedition returned from Bely Island (the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District). A group of volunteers had spent a month there cleaning up and assessing the damage human activity had inflicted on the environment. Six square kilometers was cleared of industrial waste left over from the 20th-century era of Arctic development. Aleksandr Mazharov, the district's deputy governor, spoke to this columnist for RusBusinessNews about the results of the expedition's efforts.

- Gov. Mazharov, why was the decision made to send the environmentalists to Bely Island? What were their goals and how well did they meet them?

- Bely Island is at the very northern tip of our territory and it is an official state nature preserve. The natural environment is very fragile and sensitive to external impact. Unfortunately, this was overlooked in 1935 when the Polar Hydrometeorological Station and a military unit were placed on the island. For decades this area has been littered and polluted with the remnants of human activities. But with the increasing interest in the northern continental shelf, the idea arose to turn Bely Island into a venue for international environmental research on the Arctic. The district's governor, Dmitry Kobylkin, ordered the clean-up there.

In May 2012, the government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District decided to send a squad of volunteers to Bely Island, so they could begin to clear the island as well as determine the extent of the damage and suggest a way to dispose of the equipment and buildings that had been left behind by the military and meteorologists. For four weeks the environmentalists described, photographed, measured coordinates, and mapped the location of buildings, reservoirs, equipment, machinery, scrap metal, and other debris that had accumulated over the decades of human presence on the island.

I think they did a wonderful job of this. They collected more than a thousand metal drums and carted out 75 tons of scrap metal and 25 cubic meters of solid waste. They created 75 data sheets on abandoned objects and five maps of the most polluted areas on the island. They also helped assemble the building of an Orthodox chapel that was brought in in pieces by barge.

- Did they have difficulties meeting their goals?

- Absolutely. On their first day on the island they discovered that the water level was too low in the channel they were planning to use to bring in the ships carrying the inventory and equipment they needed, so they couldn't be unloaded. Then it turned out that the two-story wooden house in the meteorologists' abandoned village was uninhabitable, and the environmentalists had to spend time repairing it.

When they began to clean up, the volunteers found that the equipment they were using was destroying the topsoil, and so it couldn't be used to clear the area. The barrels had to be collected by hand, cutting them with a saw and literally picking them out of the mud. The polar bears strolling along the coast made the work even more unnerving. The volunteers claimed the bears would approach very close to humans.

Nor was the weather over-accommodating. Those on the expedition endured cold, high winds, and weather that went from rain to sun several times a day. They had plenty of problems, like on any expedition, but it wasn't always possible to resolve them in the conventional way. But the volunteers acquitted themselves admirably amidst all the unexpected difficulties.

- How much has the environment there suffered as a result of human activities on the island? Is it possible to assess the damage?

- Obviously there's been a considerable amount of damage. This can be seen in the pictures our environmentalists brought back from the expedition. Some of the volunteers compared the island to a post-war disaster area - an uninhabited area dotted with rusty iron and logs, covered with fuel and lubricants and disfigured with burned houses and discarded equipment. Add to that the meteorological rockets lying around everywhere, the debris from the polar station's storehouse that exploded, the spent isotope batteries that until recently were stored next to the autonomous radio beacons, and the abandoned oil wells that take up a square kilometer of the site, and you can get a picture of the extent of the human impact on the environment.

But I think it's still too early to try to calculate the damage. While this island is still being fully examined and put to rights, any estimates would be only preliminary. On the ground you can still see the marks of the caterpillar treads from the equipment that was used here several decades ago. The surface of the tundra recovers very slowly, so I can't say for sure that we won't need to remediate the soil with specialized biomaterials.

- What are the plans for the island in the future? What infrastructure will be needed?

- The government of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District is planning to turn Bely Island into a research center, a permanent laboratory where the flora and fauna of the Arctic can be studied, and an environmental-monitoring base. I should mention that environmental conservation is especially important here. In addition to the polar bears, Atlantic walrus and wild reindeer live here as well. To save these endangered animals we'll need to dispose of 42 collapsing buildings and 27 pieces of abandoned equipment very quickly, plus clean up the residue from oil spills and remove tons of different types of garbage.

We're also planning to build a factory on the island. Governor Dmitry Kobylkin believes that will bring back Bely Island's indigenous inhabitants who know how to live in harmony with nature. But for them to be able to live normal lives on the island they will have to have medical clinics, cafeterias, bakeries, warehouses, stores, and other infrastructure. And 40 million rubles has already been allocated from the region's budget for this purpose.

But we can't grapple with such a daunting task on our own without the help of the federal government and private investors. It's otherwise far too much work to try to return Bely Island to its original appearance.

Interview prepared by Vladimir Terletsky

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