The Russion coal industry - an environmental and social disaster

June 13, 2013

Vladimir Slivyak

Expansion of the Russian coal industry will increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, leading to a faster climate change. One reason behind this expansion is the growing demand for Russian coal from Europe’s energy giants, such as E.On and RWE, which are among the biggest consumers of Russian coal. But this expansion also comes at the cost of worsening ecological and health impacts from an industry with an already dismal environmental record.

This is revealed in a new report on the Russian coal industry released today in Bonn, Germany, where the UN is conducting a new round of negotiations with national governments on a future climateagreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

The report, entitled “Russian coal industry: environmental and public health impacts and regional development prospects” is presented by the Russian environmental group Ecodefense and is the first independent assessment of the devastating impact the Russian coal industry has on the environment and populations residing near the mining sites and coal-fired power plants.

Ecodefense’s report was produced in 2013 and is based on official national and regional statistics as well as interviews with local experts and industry officials.

According to the report, the government’s current energy strategy, aimed at a rapid expansion of the coal industry in Russia, is connected with export plans. In 2009, Russia became the world’s third largest coal exporter and continues to build up its production of coalfor export, doubling export figures since 1990. In 2011, Russian coal companies produced 336 million tons of coal; by 2030, this figure is expected to grow by another 30%.

By 2020, Russia also plans to add some 47.2 gigawatts in new power generating capacities – including new coal-fired power plants as well as nuclear reactors. This will cause the country’s CO2 emissions to rise by over 10%, compared to 2003 levels.

Russia's government policy is not the only reason behind this boost in dirty coal production. Largest European companies, Germany’s E.On and RWE among them, are responsible for stimulating this growth in Russia’s coal exports: Of all the coal used by the two energy giants, close to 20% is coming from Russia.

According to Ecodefense’s report, most of the Russian coal is mined in Kuzbass, Southern Siberia, and this is also the region which has become the main source of coal exported to Europe, Germany in particular. Between 1993 and 2006, morbidity rates in Kuzbass increased by 19.4%, and the mortality rate by 19.7%. Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable to the severe health effects of the coal industry, according to local statistics. Over the past decade, morbidity rates among pregnant women have spiked five-fold. These horrifying statistics come from regional authorities, and yet they make no attempt to improve the situation, the report concludes.

Conditions for workers in the coal industry continue to be the worst. Every year, the industry claims around 180 lives. The situation has not improved at all over the past 20 years. No official statistics are available in Russia on how many people die from illnesses associated with coal mining operations, but environmental activists estimatemortality rates to be up to several thousand yearly across Russia. Ecologists strongly urge the Russian government to address the problem immediately.

The environmental impact of the Russian coal mining industry is severe, with high levels of soil and water pollution coming hand in hand with development of new coal deposits. The land that becomes destroyed by coal mining operations is no longer suitable for agriculture or other commercial use unless properly reclaimed, and environmental rehabilitation figures for the Russian coal industry are not encouraging.

“The Russian government wants more coal domestically and for export. That will greatly increase Russia's carbon emissions and affect the environment and public health in disastrous ways. But European energy giants, such as E.On and RWE, share the responsibility for this disaster: When they buy coal from Russia, they contribute to the crisis,” said Ecodefense co-chairman Vladimir Slivyak, who co-authored the report.

“At a time when the UN is working hard together with national governments to produce a new climate agreement reducing the world’s GHG emissions, Russia is undermining these efforts with a climate killer policy. European companies must stop supporting Russian coal. Instead, they should help Russia acquire renewable energy technologies and modernize its energy sector in environmentally friendly way,” Slivyak said.

Ecodefense’s report on the Russian coal industry is available for download at:

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Vladimir Slivyak is co-chairman of the Russian Environmental NGO "Ecodefense"