Tuesday, Sep. 22, 2009

Olga Speranskaya

When the hammer and sickle finally fell in the Soviet Union nearly two decades ago, hundreds of thousands of tons of obsolete pesticides and other chemicals were left behind, scattered about the 15 newly independent republics. Stored in torn bags and collapsing sheds, the chemical cocktail was allowed to seep into groundwater and from there it passed into the surrounding animal and human populations.

The problem had grown so bad, says Russian activist Olga Speranskaya, that a new type of hammer had to be forged, something with which to bang away at the government, "to push the authorities to clean up these sites." The 46-year-old physicist has been pounding Moscow for more than a decade now, demanding it secure stockpiles of chemicals such as DDT — long banned in the West — and help clean up the enormous mess left by the Soviets.

But Speranskaya hasn't just been on the attack. Through her work as the head of the chemical safety program at Moscow's Eco-Accord Center for the Environment and Sustainable Development, an independent environmental watchdog, she has also educated thousands of people about the dangers chemicals pose, and has brought dozens of activist groups together to make their voices louder. "The people in a town or village didn't understand the link between birth defects or health problems and the chemical landfill just in their backyard," says Speranskaya, who this year won a Goldman Environmental Prize for her work. "There was no information out there. We started with information dissemination because we understood that we needed to build this information bridge 
 to the people. The biggest result was that people started ... demanding action."

Yet huge problems remain. Russian companies are still apathetic about the environment, and government regulation is weak. From her cramped Moscow office with its teetering stacks of notebooks, reports and documents, Speranskaya stays hopeful. "The environment is beyond any political issues," she says. "We need to continue working — to fight this legacy and to not allow the authorities to make it even bigger."

'Grow your own vegetables. As long as you have clean earth and you don't live near a site that produces pollution, this is the best way to ensure you have pollution-free food.' — Olga Speranskaya