(Moscow) – Russian authorities should drop administrative cases against villagers opposed to the construction of a large-scale power plant in the Hosta district of Sochi, Human Rights Watch said today. Residents fear noise pollution and emissions from a plant built so close to a residential area could have negative effects on their health and livelihoods. The plant is projected to be the largest natural gas-powered station in the world, and its construction is part of the government’s preparations for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
In August, three residents who protested the construction were detained and two have since been chargedwith administrative offenses. The three people were released, but as the confrontation between local residents, construction workers, and the police continues to escalate, Human Rights Watch called on local authorities to examine how preparatory construction work could have gone forward before all legal requirements for environmental assessment and public consultation had been met. Human Rights Watch also called on the authorities to uphold freedom of assembly and speech.
“People are speaking out because they fear that having a massive power plant in their backyards will harm their health and livelihoods,” said Jane Buchanan, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “Instead of penalizing residents who peacefully express legitimate concerns, the local authorities should take steps to address the serious questions about the legality of the construction.”
Human Rights Watch said the authorities should also ensure that construction of the plant is carried out in compliance with the law and that the interests of the villagers, in particular their concerns about harm to their homes, health, and family life, are properly addressed.
In April 2011, local authorities received a proposal to build a thermal power plant in Kudepsta, a resort village of 20,000 within the Sochi city limits. The site is adjacent to a high-rise residential area, one kilometer from the sea and 500 meters from a children’s resort.
Environmental experts and groups have criticized the project, warning of health threats that could result from high levels of pollutant gas and noise. Kudepsta residents also fear potential health or other impacts from noise and emissions pollution and oppose the choice of a site so close to a residential area. Since the project was announced last year, Kudepsta villagers have staged numerous protests opposing the construction.
A wave of protests erupted in spring 2012 after preparatory work, including construction of a fence and an access bridge and the felling of trees, began at the site. A group of activists from the Kudepsta community board (in Russian, territorial’noe obshchestvenoe samoupravlenie, or TOS) set up an observation camp and on several occasions blocked the road leading to the site. They sought to prevent heavy machinery from entering the site to perform work they believed to be unlawful.
The preparatory work began before the results of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) had been presented at a public hearing, a requirement under Russian law, and before the documents were submitted for the environmental review. The hearing on the Kudepsta power plant EIA was held on August 24, 2012, more than two months after work started at the proposed power plant site.Under the national law regulating Olympic construction, no preparatory construction work for an Olympic site can be performed until all required documentation has been submitted for the state review.
Activists told Human Rights Watch that TOS members and local residents have faced difficulties obtaining official documentation, such as the full results of the environmental impact assessment studies, which by law the authorities should share publicly. Villagers submitted dozens of petitions and complaints listing environmental and legal concerns to the local and federal authorities as well as to the International Olympic Committee.
“People in Kudepsta have legitimate concerns that initial construction work has taken place in violation of the law,” Buchanan said. “Preparing Sochi to host the Olympics cannot be an excuse for the authorities to trample laws designed to protect people from health or other harm caused by large-scale projects that by their nature pollute and significantly alter the local environment.”
In addition to obligations under national law, Russia's human rights obligations, in particular as a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, require it to undertake a meaningful investigation and assessment to determine the impact on human rights of construction projects that it engages in or authorizes. The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly ruled that the right to private and family life includes a right to protection from environmental pollution, which may affect individuals’ well-being and prevent them from using their homes.
In cases such as the construction of a power plant, the Court requires that a proper and complete investigation, which takes into account the interests of those impacted by the construction, precedes the project. The study should assess the impact of the project on the individuals’ rights with the aim of finding the best possible solution to minimize the interference with these rights “by trying to find alternative solutions and by generally seeking to achieve their aims in the least onerous way as regards human rights.”
Arrests of Villagers
Villagers’ desperation at the lack of information and clarity about the legality of the project came to a head on August 14, when police detained Kudepsta TOS head Anatoly Mahnovsky and TOS member Pavel Chesnokov. Mahnovsky and Chesnokov had stood on the access road to the proposed power plant site with fellow residents who gathered peacefully to obstruct the arrival of heavy machinery. Mahnovsky told Human Rights Watch that by being at the site at the request of local villagers, he was performing his duties as the head of TOS.
Both men told Human Rights Watch that police asked them to sign police reports containing false information about the circumstances of their detention, which they refused to do. Police later released them but charged them with organizing unsanctioned gatherings. The men deny that they organized anything, but simply gathered with others near the construction site. They are now awaiting trial.
Following their release, the men filed complaints with the prosecutor’s office against their unlawful arrests.
Police detained Chesnokov again the next day as villagers attempted to stop heavy machinery carrying construction materials moving towards the site. Chesnokov had called police to the site, asking them to check whether workers had the legal documentation required for preparatory construction work. Police charged Chesnokov with resisting the lawful orders of a police officer, an administrative offense. If convicted, he may face a fine and up to 15 days in detention. Chesnokov’s lawyer, Alexander Popkov, told Human Rights Watch that police held Chesnokov for eight hours without charging him or drawing up an arrest report, instead of the three hours allowed by national law. While at the police station, Chesnokov’s blood pressure spiked, and he was urgently taken to the hospital where he spent 10 days receiving treatment.
One TOS activist told Human Rights Watch that following these arrests, observation camp volunteers have received threats from law enforcement agents that they will “have serious problems” if they don’t leave the site.
Human Rights Watch research has documented increased pressure on freedom of media and civil society in Sochi and documented several instances of harassment of civil society activists and independent journalists publicizing issues of concern around the Sochi Winter Olympics in recent months.
“The conflict around the power plant is far from over, but the police treatment of Kudepsta villagers is an alarming sign that the government is quashing peaceful dissent,” Buchanan said. “Cracking down on concerned local residents will not help matters, but addressing the requirement to observe a process that protects the rights of the local residents in relation to the power plant construction might prevent this conflict from escalating further.”