Environmental Concerns Dampen Mood at Sochi Games

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The Sochi Olympic games have seen their share of controversy, not least among them a reaction to the approach Russia has taken to important environments in the region. Although Putin had promised “zero waste” game construction standards, it quickly became apparent that the country was ill-equipped to build the large-scale infrastructure needed to host the thousands of people that would be attending the games.

Contaminated drinking water, illegal waste dumping, and the destruction of biodiversity have been continually cited in reference to problems the games have caused for the region, which is home to a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia,” explains Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist working with the Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus.

Although Russia set up a replacement for the valuable wetlands that were covered over in order to make way for the game venues, critics are saying that it’s not so easy to remake an ecosystem. The wetlands were home to about 65 bird species, which have been largely unseen in the new “Ornithological” replacement park. Gazaryan feels that the effort has been largely pointless; “These are ecosystems, not a Lego set that you take apart and then rebuild somewhere else,” he says.

During this construction process, many of the contractors did not dump their industrial waste in an actual wasteland, but instead turned to Sochi’s “water protected zones.” The drinking water available for the games has been noticeably tainted. Stacy St. Clair, of the Chicago Tribune, tweeted that her hotel had no water, and that the front desk had advised, in case of the water returning, to “Not use on your face because it contains something very dangerous.” Once water did arrive, it was noticeably the color of “peach juice.”

As PolicyMic writer Sarah Kaufman points out, though, the collective complaints about water quality at the games to some extent miss the real problem — journalists might have to deal with bad water to a week, but many of Russia’s 143 million people have to deal with this water day by day, without bottled Evian substitutes.

In fact, neither country can really boast too much about the average quality of water provided to its citizens. Although the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act has been in place since 1974, there are many contaminants that the act fails to regulate here in the U.S. Poor regulation is a factor as well. According to the National Resources Defense Council, studies showed that, likely due to pollution and deteriorating pipes, 19 of America’s largest cities are delivering water that has contaminants beyond EPA limits. These contaminants can include arsenic, fecal waste and lead, all potential health hazards even in trace amounts.

Is what happened at Sochi right? No, but perhaps the issues with water quality at Sochi aren’t something only Russia has to deal with. The U.S. needs to start realizing the harm its own taps could be pouring into American lives, even if the water isn’t peach colored.

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