Up to 70% of Russia’s coal is mined in Kuzbass – an area in southwest Siberia and most of the coal produced there is shipped to Europe and Asia.
Bringing together the official pollution, health, and mortality records released in the last 15 years, as well as local testimonies, expert conclusions, and media stories, Race to the Bottom, a new comprehensive report published by the Russian environmental group Ecodefense, details the massive impact of coal mining on the environment and public health of Kemerovo Region, also called Kuzbass.
The immense rise in coal production (primarily, by surface mining) and exports seen in Kemerovo Region in the past decade and a half – a boost spurred along by the authorities’ lax approach to the coal companies’ neglect of social and environmental responsibility – came with skyrocketing pollution and waste accumulation levels. Those, in turn, have led to severe damage to the health of the local population, reduced life expectancy, and higher-than-average mortality rates. Trapped in a predominantly coal-reliant economy and unable to secure compensation or relocation money, local residents are effectively held hostage to Russia’s goal of sustaining a competitive edge in a declining coal market. And the already extensive harm can grow worse yet if Russian and Kuzbass governments press ahead with further plans to increase coal production in the region.
Between 2005 and 2019, coal production in Kuzbass increased by 1.5 times (from 164 m tons to 249 m tons), and export volumes by 2,5 times (from 55 m tons to 135 m tons). As per the targets set in the regional development strategy, coal mining volumes may grow additionally by almost 1.5 times within the next 15 years, or to 380 m tons. Overall mortality in Kuzbass was 16% higher in 2019 than on average in Russia, with 1425.7 deaths per 100,000 population in this main coal-producing region compared to the Russia-wide average of 1228.1 deaths per 100,000 population. Cancer mortality rate per 100,000 population increased noticeably in Kuzbass between 2003 and 2019, rising steadily from 208.94 in 2003 to 240.8 in 2019. Annual respiratory disease mortality in Kemerovo Region has over the past nearly 30 years remained significantly and invariably higher than the national levels, with official statistics showing since 1990 an average of 75.95 deaths per 100,000 population in Kuzbass compared to 58.98 on average over the same period in Russia. And life expectancy at birth in 1990 to 2018 has been on average 3.14 years less in Kuzbass than the average across Russia.
In 2019, according to Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, enterprises of Kemerovo Region released 1.760 m tons of atmospheric pollutants –just over the total amount of emissions of the Northwestern Federal District, whose territory exceeds that of Kuzbass by about 18 times. In the decade since 2009, according to Kuzbass’s regional Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the total volume of emissions from stationary sources in Kemerovo Region has risen by 22.3%, and over the past 15 years, the yearly amount of emissions from the coal mining enterprises has nearly doubled, growing from approximately 591,000 tons in 2005 to 1,147,048 tons as of 2019. In 2019 data, the average annual amount of pollutants emitted from stationary sources per each Kuzbass resident was 662 kg; in the past five years the emissions-per-capita rate has increased by 167 kg. By comparison, on average in Russia, the value of emissions of the most common pollutants from both stationary and mobile sources as calculated per capita was in 2018 220 kg per person.
Coal mining is one of the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which are forcing global climate change. In Kuzbass, over 50% in the total volume of registered emissions from all stationary sources is taken up by methane, one of the most aggressive greenhouse gases. In methane emissions, Kemerovo Region is the unequivocal leader among all Russian regions, with 1,086,570 tons released in 2019.
In 2018, 3.6 bn tons of waste was generated in the region – almost half of the 7.3 bn tons generated in the entire country. Of the total industrial and municipal waste generated in Kuzbass, 99% is waste produced by coal mining. Between 2010 and 2019, the yearly volume of waste generated by coal mining grew in Kuzbass from 1.8 bn tons to 3.8 bn tons – or more than twofold. Calculated per ton of coal mined, waste generation rate grew from 10 tons in 2010 to 11.7 tons in 2017. The coal industry’s waste may contain, in varying concentrations, combustible carbonaceous materials, sulphur, and the naturally occurring radionuclides radium-226, thorium-228, and potassium-40, as well as their fission products. The specific land disturbance rate increased between 2010 and 2017 from 7.8 to 16.4 hectares per million tons of coal produced, or by 2.1 times. Existing regulations require establishing buffer areas around coal development sites – 1,000 kilometers from the edge of an open-pit mine and 500 meters from spoil tips, which are piles of waste rock excavated during mining – with zoning restrictions in place to protect the residents in nearby areas. In Kuzbass, this requirement is routinely disregarded throughout the region, especially in such cities as Kiselyovsk and Prokopyevsk, where the distance between residential houses and the closest open-pit mine may be less than 200 meters.
Ecodefense urges Kemerovo Region’s government to take immediate action toward diversification of the regional economy to reduce its dependence on coal. Other urgently needed steps include forcing the coal companies to establish proper buffer zones around their mining sites, forbidding coal mining and reloading within the limits of population centers, and banning rezoning of agricultural lands for mining purposes, among other measures.
“The consequences of coal mining are large-scale environmental pollution, severe illnesses, and increased mortality. This does not just mean terrible living conditions for people residing near the coal mines, but a detriment to the economy. Coal-mining regions are in need of a strategy to address the environmental crisis and diversify their economies,” says Vladimir Slivyak, co-chairman of Ecodefense and one of the authors of Race to the Bottom.
“The mining and reloading of coal within city limits, the billions of tons of spoil heaps that are burning and releasing dust into the air – this is a typical scene in Kuzbass. Because of climate change, many countries are planning to discontinue coal use, which will lead to a fall in demand. Kuzbass needs options in its jobs market, or we will face a social upheaval,” says Anton Lementuyev, Ecodefense’s coordinator in Kuzbass.