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by Tyler Nicoll

The Winter Olympics have just wrapped up and we have all returned to our lives without the adrenaline filled races and the entertaining, yet shocking tweets and headlines, but what about Sochi. As the most expensive Olympics to date, with an estimated price tag of $50 billion dollars, this Olympics also leaves another legacy, one of unmitigated environmental impacts.

Building a completely new complex in a remote area with limited existing infrastructure was an ambitious goal and one with countless potential environmental impacts. However, in 2009, Sochi Olympic organizers planned to make these games “the most environmentally sound, the greenest Olympics ever.” A Green Standard for construction was developed and specified sourcing sustainable building materials and corporate sponsors planned to offset the carbon footprint of Games by improving insulation in Russian homes in other parts of the country. While plans were full of good intentions, the construction resulted in significant environmental damage.

Built in a highly valuable ecological area, some efforts were made to avoid valuable habitat, such as relocating the bobsled run to avoid sensitive areas with rare flora and fauna. However, other projects had significant impacts. Despite an international ranking as a protected area, 6,000-acres of Sochi National Park, the most biodiverse area in Russia, were used to build ski jumps and courses. Ice rinks, roads, and hotels were constructed on reclaimed marshland which served as habitat for migrating birds. Although the government attempted to compensate for the loss of the migratory bird habitat by constructing an “Ornithological Park,” the result was a low quality habitat.

The remote location required the construction of a high-speed railroad, which further impacted the surrounding landscape and local communities in particular through illegal dumping and discharges. Over 1,500 illegal dumping incidents were reported, however with minor enforcements. The Associate Press reports the railway company was only fined $3,000. As a result, the build-up of construction debris and pollutants contaminated the Mzymta River, home to the rare Black Sea Salmon.

Not too long ago water quality headlines shocked everyone. News articles detailed the newly constructed facilities shortfalls experienced by spectators and athletes with discolored and contaminated water coming out of their faucets (and no one can forget the slew of Bob Costas jokes). However, the aftermath and next steps to restore the damages have now faded from public view.

Differences Exposed: Standard Development and Mitigation Practices

The construction of Sochi’s Olympic Village exposed the dramatic differences between construction and environmental standards worldwide. There are a number of strictly enforced regulations that protect the environment and residents from negative effects of development. While Russia may have initially planned to follow examples and adopt similar regulations, a number of issues prevented the implementation. The construction Green Standards and initial promise to replace any trees lost mirror regulations found in the United States and elsewhere.

Prior to development, environmental consultants are enlisted to prove that all measures have been taken to: avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts, in that order respectively. The developer must first demonstrate why certain impacts are unavoidable and reasonably necessary. Second, if impacts must occur, the developer must document the attempt and methods to minimize the impacts. And finally, mitigation must fully offset the impacts from the project. For example, during a development project if any wetlands are impacted, the developer will be responsible for creating or enhancing wetlands nearby to offset the impacts as  stipulated by the Clean Water Act, “no net loss of wetlands.” Russia’s tree replacement promise is similar to the tree replacement regulations in the United States. Local governments generally require planting replacement trees at more than a one-to-one ratio. Furthermore, in New York City, for any city tree cut down, tree restitution must be paid and the dollar amount correlates to ecological value of the tree (e.g. how old is the tree, how rare is the species?). In Sochi’s case, planting a new sapling is not sufficient to replace a mature tree which was cut down.

Initially planned to be the world’s “greenest” Olympic Games, Sochi’s environmental footprint is not the one intended. While the question remains, what now for Sochi, the city and Russia need solutions to address the environmental damages not just the economic and social impacts.

Chance, Matthew. Russia Plans ‘green’ Winter Olympics. CNN. Cable News Network, 11 Dec. 2009.
Diggs, Charles. Sochi Olympic Torch Light to Commemorate Ecological Wasteland — Bellona, 7 Feb. 2014.
Gillen, David, and Channon Hodge. The Olympics: A Costly Feel-Good Moment. The New York Times, 05 Feb. 2014.
Kramer, Andrew E. Environmental Groups Denounce Arrests of Ecologists Near Olympic Sites. The New York Times, 06 Feb. 2014