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Russia: Large indigenous settlement areas affected by heptyl pollution from rocket launches

For decades, indigenous peoples in Russia have been affected by the impact of space rocket launches. Recently, the Russian daily "Izvestiya" reported that the terminal disease which killed the late director of the Russian space agency Roskosmos Vladimir Popovkin, was most likely caused by intoxication he contracted during a clean-up operation after a failed launch of a "Proton"  rocket-carrier at the Baikonur launch site on 2 July last year.

According to Denis Lyskov of the Federal space Agency, doctors believe that visiting the scene of the accident,  Popovkin was exposed to vaporized heptyl, a highly toxic fuel used in "Proton" rockets. Vladimir Popovkin died of cancer on 18 June in an Israeli medical facility. In this context, the newspaper “Novosti Gornogo Altaia” recalled, that in Altai republic in Southern Siberia,  local residents suspect that they are exposed to heptyl contamination, which enters the environment together with rocket parts, which impact in their territory during launches.

For several decades, this part of the Altai has been officially listed as burned-out rocket stage impact area No. 327 This area covers the central parts of the mountain ridges Iolgo, Sumultinski, Altyntu and the upper reaches of the rivers Uimen, Pyzha,Bolshaya Sumulta and Malaya Sumulta The area is formed as an ellipsis of 70 by 40 kilometres in total covering 198 Square kilometres. It has been in use since 1970. In recent decades, several thousand tons of space flight waste have accumulated in uninhabited zones of the Altai.

On 24 August 2011, due to an emergency situation during the launch, a "progress" space vessel exploded. Its debris came down over the territory of Alta republic. Since the vessel had been carrying about 800 kilogrammes of heptyl for the International Space Station ISS, the the Directorate for Consumer Rights and Health Protection (Rospotrebnadzor) for several months carried out daily monitoring for the presence of heptyl and heavy metal salts in waters, wild plants and the ground According to the agency, no traces of these pollutants were found. However, recently the head of Rospotrebnadzor, Leonid Shchuchinov announced that in 10% of blood samples taken from inhabitants of the Altai Mountains, heptyl breakdown products were found.  

Anastasia Semenovna Todozhokova has devoted many years of her life to studying and raising the authorities’ awareness for the issue of heptyl contamination of the environment. She confirms that since the year 2000, heptyl remnants has been diffusing from extinguished fuel tanks over the Altai, forming toxic cloud affecting the very  area, where the indigenous Tubalar people pursue their traditional subsistence activities “In our people, cancer has grown younger, it has become an everyday encounter, one in five walks with tumours of various types”, she says

Threat also hanging over the residents of Khabarovsk territory

On 18 March 2014, the Khabarovsk edition of the daily “Argumenty i Fakty” reported about a meeting between representatives of Roskosmos with members of the Ecological Council with the Environmental ministry of Khabarovsk territory.

The better part of the meeting was taken by a presentation by Oleg Dmitriev of Roskosmos. He talked in detail about which fuel will be used at the “Vostochny” (“Eastern”) launch site, where the stages will come down and so forth. The federal agency for special construction “Spetsstroy” estimates that it will complete the construction of the “Vostochny” cosmodrome in Amur region by the middle of next year. According to the plans of Roskosmos, the first launch from “Vostochny”shall be carried out in 2015.

The places, where the rocket parts will come down, include four areas within Khabarovsk territory. These are located in Tuguro-Chumikansky district in the upper reaches of the Tugur river, in Verkhnebureinski district north from Chegdomyn village, in Ulchi district, south of De-Kastri village and in the Ayano-Maiski district south of Ayan village. He stated that these were inaccessible, places with virtually no residents and only occasional visits by hunters and fishermen. Oleg Dmitriev tried to reassure the audience that this fuel (heptyl) This means that the remnants of this harmful substance will not reach the ground or enter the waters in any case, the Roskosmos representative assured.

During the meeting, Lyubov Passar (president of the regional indigenous peoples’ association) demanded from Roskosmos to conduct public consultations within the prospective areas of impact of the rocket parts. “Shouldn’t those very fishermen and reindeer herders know exactly, what is up for them?”, she asked?

A.S. Todozhokova and Alexander Arbachakov commented these reports:

When they say that there will be no Heptyl in the environment, the representatives of Roskosmos are dodging the issue. The exhausted heptyl (asymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine nitrogen tetroxide +) dissipates from the tanks into the atmosphere and forms a toxic aerosol cloud covering this area. People, animals and flora breathe polluted air.  It is very difficult to detect a the concentration of 0, 0001 milligrammes per cubic decimeter, but such small doses are very dangerous and have long-term effects on the body. It affects the immune and reproductive systems as well as the genetic health. You have to demand for children to be transported away from these areas during the summer months and for coverage of the medical costs”, Todozhokova wrote in early April on a the mailing list.

Alexander Arbachakov responded: “The trouble is that usual laboratories are unable to detect heptyl, they don’t have the required spectroscopes, further, there are certain requirements regarding the taking of samples for the conduct of such analyses. Now, imagine a remote place, which can be reached only by helicopter, where a rocket stage with heptyl has come down. In order to take a sample, you have to determine the place of impact, you have to have a specialist who has the the according credentials/skills in order to take samples, he has to get there on time and get the sample on time to a laboratory, which has a modern spectroscope. Therefore it will be exceedingly difficult in the given case to gather the necessary evidence in order to demand compensation from Roskosmos Of course, we have to demand the conduct of an ecological expert review through the state authorities. And, of course, this needs to be addressed systematically.”

It needs to be added that the “Vostochny” cosmodrome will also endanger the inhabitants of Amur region, in particular of Zeiski, Selemjinski and Tyndinski districts, which are inhabited by indigenous Evenks.Because, in these places where there is “virtually no population”, in fact indigenous inhabitants are pursuing their traditional subsistence activities, they drink the water from environmental water bodies, they hunt, fish, gather wild plants and herd reindeer. The authorities must be pressured to ensure that information on rocket launches is made public, that the services in charge are present at the launch and impact sites, fully equipped to monitor possible contamination, that samples are taken on time and that the state provides adequate medical care, rehabilitation and compensation to the population located in the affected zones.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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