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Shocking scale of pollution in Russian Arctic where abandoned ships are rotting and fuel barrels are piled up

This year some 6,540 tons of rusting Soviet waste was removed from remote Arctic islands by troops – but it could take ‘dozens of years’ to clean up mess

These shocking pictures show the scale of pollution across the Russian Arctic amid warnings that it could still take “dozens of years” to clean up the Soviet Union’s dirty legacy in the pristine territory.

One Siberian region alone – Yakutia, the largest in President Vladimir Putin’s empire – has a staggering five million tons of scrap metal dumped in its polar districts, and currently no budget to clean any of the rusting and toxic debris.

Wrecks of old ships are littering the cold Arctic waters in marine graveyards.

On the Russian president’s orders, the army is deployed each summer to remove junk, much of which pollutes the precious northern environment.

An abandoned boat in the Russian arctic region of Yakutia (Photo: Will Stewart / East2West)

More has been uncovered amid a loss of snow cover in Arctic latitudes which scientists say is unprecedented in modern times.

This year some 6,540 tons of rusting Soviet waste was removed from remote Arctic islands by troops, more than the planned 4,500 tons.

The Russian Defence Ministry say that by 2020 they will have cleaned up all Cold War military sites, meeting Putin’s target.

General Dmitry Bulgakov, deputy head of the ministry, said: “The aim is for complete cleansing of Defence Ministry territory in the Arctic from environmental waste.”

Kirill Chistyakov, vice president of Russian Geographic Society and director of the Institute of Earth Studies at St Petersburg State University, said: “A lot of things in the Arctic have been done the wrong way.

Piles of junk that hasn’t been cleaned up yet (Photo: Will Stewart / East2West)

“For example, huge deposits of barrels and other containers built up during dozens of years in Soviet times. All of it should be collected.

“In my estimate, there is enough work here for dozens of years. The [clean-up] process has been going for five years and will continue for another ten to 15 years.”

“The Arctic still remains an extreme place that requires elaborate planning of all sides of research and commercial projects.

“Any negligence will be paid later with blood and, perhaps, human lives. Nature is a lot more powerful and smarter than everything that humanity came up with so far.”

This year some 6,540 tons of rusting Soviet waste was removed from remote Arctic islands (Photo: Will Stewart / East2West)

Yet it is not only historic waste dating from the USSR era that is polluting the vast Russian Arctic shoreline stretching from its border with Norway to the Pacific.

A check by the Russian General Prosecutor’s Office this year found more than 8,000 violations of the law on recycling of waste in far north regions.

“Numerous illegal swamps and landfills in the Arctic zone were revealed,” reported The Siberian Times .

And this year a polar bear was photographed on Russia’s Wrangel Island with a tin can painfully wedged on its tongue after scavenging for food at a garbage dump.

The animal had to be sedated to remove the tin.

Russia says that by 2020 they will have cleaned up all Cold War military sites (Photo: Will Stewart / East2West)

But at one site meteorologist Aleskander Oboimov, a member of the Russian Geographic Society, praised the authorities for a clear up at Cape Zhelaniya on Severny island, in the far-flung Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

This was a secret experimental station during the Cold War, and Novaya Zemlya was used for a huge number of nuclear tests.

Three years ago on his last visit there were “piles of rusty fuel barrels, equipment rotting in the salty sea wind, and dozens of polar bears living in houses abandoned by people”.

On his latest visit this year “we were amazed by cleanliness and order across the territory of former polar station”.

He reported that “nearly all the Arctic rubbish has been removed from Zhelaniya Cape”.


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