From Russia, With Blood: The Impact of Coal Exports to Britain

Russia/Britain (NI) – In my home country of Russia, open-cast coalmining is expanding, leading to growing environmental devastation and countless human rights abuses affecting indigenous peoples. Coal consumption within Russia is dropping, but exports have grown tremendously in recent years, with Britain the second-biggest consumer of Russian coal, after China. A new report, the Cost of Coal produced by my organization, Ecodefense, establishes a direct link between increased extraction and expanded coal exports over the past decade.

Over 60 per cent of Russian coal is extracted in the Kuzbass region of Siberia. Part of it – 15.6 per cent of total exports – is then transported almost 6,000 kilometres to be burned in British power stations. The human and environmental costs of this coal are high.

In the Kuzbass, the local authorities are controlled by the coal companies which provide most of their towns’ income. As a result, they tend to turn a blind eye to the damage caused by the industry. Mining developments often meet resistance from local communities, particularly indigenous peoples like the Shor and Teluet, who have experienced a range of human rights abuses connected to coalmining.

Among them is the case of the Shor village of Kazas. Some of the villagers refused to leave when the coal company, Yuzhnaya (managed by London-listed Evraz), asked them to go. Almost immediately after their refusal, all of the houses in the village were set ablaze on the same night. Police never investigated who set the fires, but the village is gone now and the company is free to extract coal where it once stood.

Another indigenous group, the Teluet, no longer exist as a distinct ethnic group in the Kuzbass, because of coalmining. They have been driven from their communtities by encroaching mines, increased air and water pollution, and dust from the mines leaving their agricultural land unsuitable for producing crops. Their sacred mountain has been destroyed by mining and they have rapidly lost their language, following the dispersal of their villages into disparate urban areas, where they live as single households, disconnected from the shared culture of the village.

Pollution from coal dust is a serious health hazard in the Kuzbass. According to official statistics, 93.8 per cent of drinking-water sources in the region are polluted. A particularly troubling sign of the pollution levels in the Kuzbass is the region’s black snowfall. According to an official government report, snow in the Kuzbass contains sulphur compounds, nitrites, chlorides, potassium and manganese.

Part of the Ecodefense report focuses on the medical issues surrounding Russian coalmining. The average life expectancy of the Kuzbass population is three to four years shorter than the average in Russia.

In the Kuzbass, the tuberculosis rate is 1.7 times the Russian average. The region had the highest rate of child cerebral palsy in Russia in 2011 and second highest in 2012. The incidence of 15 types of cancer in the Kuzbass are above Russia’s averages.

Further, infant circulatory system anomalies are 1.6 times higher, and female reproductive system anomalies are 3.3 times higher than national averages. The Kuzbass is the only region in Siberia where incidence of infectious and parasitic diseases in children are two to three times above Russia’s national average. While in Russia there are 988 cases for every 100,000 children, in Kuzbass the rate is 2,400-3,200 cases per 100,000.

Another aspect of the Russian coal story is, of course, climate change. Russian president Vladimir Putin went to the UN climate summit in Paris in December 2015 and promised to join forces with the international community in curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Putin declared his support for the Paris deal while he found himself in the global spotlight, but he is yet to ratify the agreement.

Coal Image Source: oatsy40, Flickr, Creative Commons

Image Source: oatsy40, Flickr, Creative Commons

This shouldn’t be surprising if we look at Russian energy policy, though. The Russian government’s plans for the coal industry include a significant increase in coal extraction and use until 2030, while natural gas consumption is expected to drop during that same period. Renewable energy is not even recognized by the Russian government as a serious option for Russia’s energy mix. Strangely, there is an ambitious target to improve energy efficiency by 40 per cent by 2020, yet little to no effort has been made on this front. Clearly, Putin likes to appear a friend of the planet, but is unlikely to match his words with action when it comes to climate and energy policy.

In practice, the Russian government’s energy policy is simply to offer the world as much fossil fuel as it wants to buy, at the cheapest price it can. Britain’s share of the Russian coal market means it could – if it chose to – start asking questions about the human and environmental costs of Russian coal. But it has yet to do so.

The British government seems no more inclined than its Russian counterpart to discuss the problems caused by the coal which keeps Britain’s power plants stocked. If we can build the pressure necessary to make politicians abroad talk about the problems, it will be harder for those within Russia to continue to ignore them.

Britain could easily wash its hands of this story, blaming the Russian state for the abuses described above. However, it is not an innocent bystander to the violence in the Kuzbass. In fact, it is a central player in the drama, with only China burning more Russian coal. Britain and China account for nearly half of all coal exports from the Kuzbass. So a positive step would be to close Britain’s remaining coal power stations.

This would dramatically reduce demand for coal from the Kuzbass region. There is currently no alternative buyer waiting in the wings to replace Britain’s share of the Russian coal market, as other potential customers are already divesting or have their coal needs met elsewhere. Lower British demand would mean less mining in Russia, which would limit mine expansion, protecting communities and the local environment from further devastation.

A recent report by the Coal Action Network shows that almost all of Britain’s nine coal power stations burn Russian coal.

I have travelled to Britain with a call for justice – something which is not available in my own country. I hope the British government will enforce an immediate coal phase-out, closing all of the country’s remaining coal-fired power stations, curbing the demand that is wiping out whole communities in Russia. Without international pressure, there is little hope for resolution to the violence facing the Shor and Teluet communities. If we stand together, though, I believe we can ditch coal once and for all – in the Kuzbass and beyond.


This report prepared by Vladimir Slivyak for New Internationalist.