Ecologists raise alarm over Russia's Olympics

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With just over 1,000 days left before the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia is pulling out all the stops to get ready in a drive activists say is leaving a devastating toll on the environment.

Some 70 percent of Olympic construction is finished in the Black Sea city and the surrounding mountains, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has championed the holding of the Games.

But locals and environmentalists say the large scale development is steamrolling ahead at too high a price to a fragile environment.

Olympic organizers have argued that their goal is to make the Sochi games "green" and that measures such as tree plantings are more than adequate compensation for the building development.

"In general, environmental damage in Sochi is much worse than what we expected in the early stages of construction planning," said Suren Gazaryan of the Environmental Watch on North Caucasus.

The regional NGO continues to monitor Olympic construction sites after both Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund announced they were withdrawing from the process last year.

"Right now construction crews have no oversight, they simply do what suits them, and this landslide is a good example," Gazaryan said as he walked along a river in Sochi National Park whose shores have become encrusted with asphalt-like mud.

A mudslide from an illegal dump up the hill tore through the park and filled the river's banks with debris from tunnel construction and other waste in January.

"Clearly leaving thousands of tons of waste on a steep hillside is not a good idea, but its convenient, and it can't be stopped," Gazaryan said as he picked off a chunk of the black substance for testing.

Russia's environmental ministry called the massive dump "inadmissible" last year, but its watchdog managed to close it down for a mere 10 days.

"It seems like there is no government in Sochi. It has eliminated itself from the Olympic process, and there is a unspoken directive not to intervene, because construction has to be finished on time," Gazaryan said.

Locals from the nearby village Akhshtyr say the dump is not the only danger posed by the Olympic highway project that will connect the airport with mountain venues for an estimated $8 billion.

"We're risking our lives living here now," said farmer Alexander Koropov, launching into a loud tirade as the deafening noise of cargo trucks passing along the narrow village road punctuate his words every couple of minutes.

A local was killed in March after one truck ran him over at night, according to the Sochi police. The driver was found after satellite tracking showed that he stopped at the scene of the accident to drag the body into a ditch.

Over a year ago the village lost access to drinking water after construction on the highway ruined their water wells.

Environmentalists say damage could be minimized early on if developers considered their advice, but many of the projects were planned too quickly and in secret.

Many of the venues and infrastructural objects were already partly built before the official go-ahead from the state environmental watchdog whose green light on any large project is necessary before construction begins.

The latest list of Olympic projects undergoing such review published last week showed that even the central stadium is still not formally approved. By the time experts find defects in projects, it is often too late to fix them.

Activists are especially irked by a railway project that recently devastated a coastal park without such permission.

"It was one of the few remaining areas on the coast with untouched nature," Gayane Antonova, member of the Russian Geographical Society in Sochi, says standing above Vidny cape, formerly a stretch of a pine tree forest and picturesque shoreline used by strollers and divers alike.

It is now strewn with mud, piles of gravel, and concrete that Russia's railroad monopoly Russian Railways is using to build an additional line of track for transporting materials to the Olympic park.

Local media said last year that the line was originally a tunnel, which collapsed in the course of construction, prompting the company to lay the track right on the shore.

"The last time I called the police, they said the road was too muddy for them to come out," said Antonova, who has tried several times to stop logging of endangered pine in the park.

Instead, security guards escorted her to the police station, where she was accused of hooliganism. A Sochi court dismissed these accusations last week.

"Sometimes it seems that they are mocking us, picking the worst possible way to build on purpose," she said.

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