Russian ports pay a heavy price for coal shipments to Asia
Under-regulated coal shipping has led Russian ports toward an ecological catastrophe, but with the sun setting on the sector, a commercial catastrophe also looms
In Nakhodka, a fine dust pervades the air and blankets the streets like a black shroud. During winter, fresh snow turns dark and the frozen bay of the Russian Pacific port is covered with a thick layer of filth.
The source of this pollution? The port terminals, where huge piles of coal lie in the open air, waiting to be shipped to Japan, South Korea, China and elsewhere across the Asia Pacific.
“Even when the wind is not blowing, the coal dust easily reaches us. It is like living in a coal mine” says Sergey Dorenko, a resident of Cape Astafieva, located right next to the terminals. “When the weather is windy, it’s impossible to stay outside.”
Once busy as a port loading metal, wood and other materials, Nakhodka switched entirely to coal a few years ago. Since then, breathing in the town has become laborious.
Mikhail Volkov, chief doctor in a local oncology center, told local newspaper ENV the amount of oncologic diseases in the region have doubled over the last 10 years. Continuous exposure to coal dust increases the incidence of heart attacks, as well as respiratory diseases like pneumonia and lung cancer.
When Lyubov Aleksandrovna moved to Cape Astafieva 30 years ago, the area was clean; people would swim in the bay. Now she does not let her nieces play in the open. “They are poisoning our children with this filth. My youngest niece comes back every day from school covered in black dust,” she complains. Like most others residents, Lyubov feels trapped: Her apartment lost most of its value and no one is interested in buying.
According to local activists, the technology used in the port terminals dates back to the 1960s and ’70s and is not suitable for shipping coal – especially in massive volumes. Even in nearby Vrangel Bay, where Vostochny Port boasts advanced eco-friendly technology, coal dust finds its way into people’s homes.
“I have to clean my apartment every day and it is still not enough to get rid of the dust. If I had the chance, I would have left this place long ago” says Vladimir, a resident of Vrangel. Most residents are employed at Vostochny, so they are reluctant to openly reveal their discontent. Workers who prefer not to disclose their identity said residents who publicly denounced environmental violations received anonymous threats.
Complaints by citizens in Nakhodka were largely ignored by authorities until last February, when thousands of residents joined street protests and attracted the attention of federal media. A few months later a schoolboy from Nakhodka addressed President Vladimir Putin during his annual direct line conference, asking him for help. Putin reassured the boy and pledged to intervene.
Since then, several shipping companies have been found guilty of violating environmental laws. However, most paid small fines and immediately resumed activities. Others implemented cosmetic measures, such as protective fences and dust suppression devices, which proved utterly unequal to the crisis.
In March, the governor of Primorsky Region, Andrey Tarasenko, signed an agreement with Nakhodka shipping companies. The firms promised to reduce their environmental impact by implementing systemic changes in loading methods. But many citizens remain skeptical.
“We have been monitoring the environmental situation for the last few years. Despite the many promises, official meetings and measures taken, nothing has changed,” said Tatyana Vshivkova, the director of a local environmental monitoring group. According to Vshivkova, besides adopting adequate technology, environmental laws need to be changed with more severe punishments introduced for companies.
Tourism center under a dark cloud
The ecological catastrophe has not reached the port of Slavyanka, 200 kilometers south of Vladivostok, where the snow still strikes the eyes with its whiteness. In the summer, Slavyanka attracts tourists from across the region, as well as from the nearby Chinese border.
But since last year, citizens of Slavyanka have been joining street protests, after the construction of a new coal terminal on the town’s outskirts was announced. “We agree with the development of port infrastructure, as long as it doesn’t become a source of pollution,” says Ruslan Voitiuk, a local businessman in the hospitality sector, who believes that the opening of a coal terminal will hamper further tourism development.
Even if coal investors guarantee that shipping activity will be carried out in full accordance with environmental norms, citizens of Slavyanka are doubtful; they fear they will suffer the same fate as Nakhodka.
According to Voitiuk, mass demonstrations are the only way to dissuade authorities from opening the terminal. “After Nakhodka, are authorities really willing to create another source of tension here?” he asks.
But the mayor of Slavyanka, Maksim Brenchakov, is more neutral. While expressing support for the activists, he invites people not to rush to judgment, saying the terminal project has not yet been presented. He notes that citizens will have the chance to express their opinions on the matter during a public hearing, the results of which will be taken into account by decision-makers.
However, Brenchakov accepts that the market will have the last word: “If trade is profitable, there will be trade, regardless of what people want,” he said. “People come and go while business stays. Business always prevails.”
Coal industry pivots to Asia, as sector dies
The increase of coal exports from the Far East is sparked by rising demand from Asian countries. With Russian demand stagnating and coal consumption in Europe falling, exports to Asia are the only way ahead for the Russian coal industry.
But ecologists from the group “Eco Defense” say this pivot to Asia will not save Russia’s coal industry. Data from the Russian Federation’s Governmental Analytical Center suggests that by 2040 export volumes will be 35-39% less than in 2015, due to shrinking global demand after the signing of the Paris climate accord.
Even China, a major importer of Russian fossil fuels, is reducing investment in the coal sector, switching to cleaner sources of energy. And transport costs are already hitting the competitiveness of Russian coal on Asian markets: thousands of kilometers separate major coal mines in the Kuzbass region from the ports of the Far East. Without continuous state subsidies, coal companies would not be able to stay profitable.
However, despite the negative prognoses for the long term, Russian coal extraction and exports to the East are expected to continue growing in the short term.
Activists say coal companies are anxious to maximize their profits as long as demand and prices are buoyant. “Coal companies are well aware that there is not much time left, so they are selling as much coal as possible,” says Vladimir Slivyak, co-founder of “Eco Defense.”
Slivyak, an ecologist, said that in less than 10 years the slow death of the coal industry will start to hit shipping companies in Nakhodka; many will close, leaving massive unemployment – and an environmental catastrophe.
“The crisis of the coal industry is unavoidable: It is a global tendency that our authorities seem to ignore,” he said. “Our duty is trying to raise awareness that we need to prepare for it.”