U.N. group claims Russian Olympic games will harm local ecosystems

Associatedpress and Associatedpress

MOSCOW — The top U.N. environmental watchdog has criticized Russia in a report to be released Tuesday for ignoring the effects that several construction projects for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will have on the region’s unique wildlife.

In the report — obtained Monday by the Associated Press — the U.N. Environment Program says impact assessments undertaken by the government “did not take into account the cumulative … effects of the various projects on the ecosystems of the Sochi region and its population.”

The Sochi games are a pet project of Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who broke tradition to deliver a speech in English to the International Olympic Committee in 2007 during the bidding stage.

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused immediate comment, saying he hadn’t seen the UNEP report.

Russia’s dated Black Sea resort of Sochi is under the spotlight as it takes the torch from Vancouver as the next Winter Olympic host.

As constructors set about building all the required facilities from scratch, green activists say the ecosystems have already suffered irreversible damage, and bird and bear habitats have been destroyed. Ecologists say the pristine rivers and forests of the North Caucasus mountain range are home to thousands of protected plant and animal species.

The government says it has taken the activists’ concerns on board and accuses them of trying to sabotage the games as a public relations stunt.

The “Sochi 2014 Report of the UNEP 2nd Expert Mission” was based on the body’s three-day trip to Sochi in January, which involved visits to various sites considered sensitive along the construction path of a combined road and rail link that connects coastal facilities with ones in the mountains.

The WWF and Greenpeace Russia say the chief environmental threat is to the Mzymta River, which the communications link is set to follow. Thousands of beech trees have been felled to clear the path for the link.

UNEP also said Sochi organizers were procrastinating on political decisions that would mitigate and compensate for the unwanted environmental fallout of the games.

“The mission observed that decisions taken at the political level … are taking too long,” the report said. It cited such projects as the enlargement of Sochi National Park, better protection of the Mzymta valley, and the creation of new protected areas along the Black Sea coast that would host migratory birds.

The WWF and Greenpeace recently suspended their co-operation as consultants for Olympstroi, the state-run constructor, in protest that their concerns were being ignored.

The UNEP report urged both the activists and the government to continue cooperating, saying there was a “reluctance to engage with or even listen to each other’s calls for actions from both sides.”

In the recommendations section, UNEP said a “comprehensive assessment of the overall impact of the Olympic and tourism projects on the ecosystem” should be conducted.

UNEP said the activists’ concerns sparked the decision to visit Sochi and produce a report.

The Sochi games is adopting a unique “cluster” strategy. A coastal cluster of arenas will cater for ice skating sports, and a mountain cluster will accommodate ski, snowboard and other events.