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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Cashing in on river destruction?

Environmentalists demand that the state work out criteria to regulate the construction of small hydroelectric power stations on Carpathian rivers, for, in their absence, private companies build stations wherever they want to, even in nature reserves
13 May, 2014 - 11:35

Nature conservationists are again sending letters to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources. This time they request the ministry to protect the Carpathian rivers, where small hydroelectric power stations (HEPS) continue to be built illegally. Experts say that Ukraine still has no criteria to regulate HEPS construction in the Carpathians. Stations are often built without any scientific evaluation on the territories that are nature reserves or particularly valuable lands.

Among the particularly valuable natural territories is the valley of the River Bily Cheremosh which supplies water to Chernivtsi and the adjacent towns and villages. This is the habitat of Ukraine’s largest population of the Carpathian trout. Environmentalists are warning that if hydroelectric stations continue to be built on the river, the region will face water supply problems and the trout population will diminish considerably. Naturally, nobody is going to ban HEPS construction on rivers, for this promotes development of the renewable sources of energy. But, on the other hand, experts request that this should be done in a well-balanced and rational way. Therefore they urge the nature ministry to map out HEPS construction criteria as soon as possible.

The current situation is that the laws that govern this matter differ in interpretation. While some standard-setting instruments define a certain territory as part of an ecosystem, others do not, while this factor is very important in terms of what and where can be built. Almost nobody obeys orders and instructions of the State Ecological Inspection. For example, the inspection prohibits all kinds of field work in the rivers and lakes from April until mid-May because of fish spawning. However, entrepreneurs go on building HEPS on the Bily Cheremosh and other Carpathian rivers.

“For example, a hydro station is still being built in the village of Sarata on the border with Rumania even during the spawning. This village of about ten houses is considered almost inaccessible, and you can only get their on a jeep in good weather. So, knowing that no eco inspectors will examine the river, investors continue to build power stations,” says Petro Tiestov, a Nature Protection Squad expert. “The current trend is that HEPS are being built at banned places in contravention of the law. By promising a local commune jobs or money to renovate a school, companies thus obtain permission from people, but then it turns out that the neighboring downstream village has remained without clean water. Sometimes the place, where a station is already being built, is to be soon made part of a national park.”

Activists say permission was given by the previous authorities, so investors hasten to finish what they began before the new leadership tackles this problem. Why is it so lucrative to build HEPS on the mountain rivers? Specialists say it is a desire to reap good profits rather than concern about the development of renewable energy. For the electricity produced at a HEPS is sold at the so-called “green” rate and costs twice as much as, say, the energy produced at a nuclear power plant. So, having invested millions in a hydroelectric project, the investor will derive far larger profits in a few years’ time.

There was a similar river-salvation public campaign in 2012. The activists achieved a success at the time – the Ministry for Ecology and Natural Resources checked whether it was legal to build Carpathian HEPS, and some of them remained nonstarters. So environmentalists are demanding again that the ministry discontinue the construction of all the hydroelectric stations until proper criteria have been drawn up.

“Whenever a hydroelectric station is being built in Europe, every effort is made not to harm the tourist sector, expert opinions are taken into account, and numerous debates are held. The point is that, while [in Europe] HEPS supply electric power to local facilities, in this country they are built to cash in on the green rate,” Tiestov comments. “Licenses to build them are issued by the State Directorate for Architecture and Construction Supervision, but in reality nobody supervises the construction. If a station is being built on the boundary of two oblasts, neither of them wants to take on responsibility.”

If the activists are not heard, they will reportedly take large-scale protest actions in Kyiv and the regions. So far, the dialog with the new ministerial team is unconstructive. At any rate, there has been no response to the activists’ official queries about the construction of hydroelectric power stations.

By Inna LYKHOVYD, The Day