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Mzymta River watershed endangered by 2014 Olympic Games

The Council of Canadians raised numerous concerns about the environmental impacts of the 2010 Olympics, including the damage done by the $980-million Sea-to-Sky highway expansion between Vancouver and Whistler.

Similar concerns are now emerging around the next Winter Olympic Games.

The Toronto Star reports today on the harm to “the ecologically fragile Mzymta River valley” related to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

It reports there is “a frenzy of construction underway, carving an all-important road-and-rail corridor linking the icy mountains to the palm-lined seashore. The work is so aggressive that last month Russian environmentalists withdrew from the project in disgust, accusing Moscow of breaking its own laws, permanently trashing a rare and pristine wilderness in its quest to reclaim global glory.”

Igor Chestin, who heads the Moscow branch of the World Wildlife Fund, says: “We have washed our hands of it. Our role now is to tell the public this destruction is happening and that there is no way back. Our latest testing shows concentrations of oil from construction vehicles at 30 to 40 times the allowable limit. And other pollutants, like arsenium, are washing into the watershed due to the disturbance from so many construction sites.”

Last month, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report that stated irreparable environmental harm has already been done during the construction of the road and rail communications corridors linking the mountain venues with those on the Black Sea Coast.

And concerns were raised last year about a planned road to the Olympic Ski Complex on Psekhako Ridge that would cross the Western Caucasus UNESCO World Heritage Site. State-owned Gazprom, the world’s largest gas company, is the investor behind this road that will lead to their new mountain resort.

The Toronto Star article adds, “Russia’s environmental rage is also directed at Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, which signed on last summer to help oversee the building of the controversial $8 billion corridor, far and away the most complex and expensive of the 2014 projects, involving 27 kilometres of tunnels and 28 bridges. The deal was announced with great fanfare in Sochi by International Trade Minister Stockwell Day.”

Chestin says it’s clear that no real environmental assessment on this construction project has been done. SNC-Lavalin says its role is “very minor” and involves “purely engineering analysis”.

But a June 2009 media release from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade states, “While in Sochi, Minister Day also witnessed the signing of an agreement between SNC-Lavalin and Russian Railways to manage the construction and maintenance of transportation facilities for the 2014 Games, as well as the railway expansion of the Olympic coastline. Located in downtown Sochi, SNC-Lavalin’s new office will house the joint project management team overseeing the work. Currently, 12 Canadians are working on the team, with up to 8 additional people scheduled to join by the end of the year.”

Massive public expenditures on environmentally-harmful highways seem to go hand-in-hand with the Olympics. While we can respect the spirit of the Games, governments and corporate sponsors must surely first respect the land and water.

The Toronto Star report is at http://olympics.thestar.com/2010/article/789905–2014-olympics-in-sochi-face-terror-and-environmental-concerns.