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As Sochi takes Olympic torch, greens in despair

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm over preparations for the next Winter Olympics, at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Image: construction in Sochi, Russia
Workers prepare the Roza Khutor skiing center outside Sochi, Russia, in 2008. Roza Khutor will be the site of the alpine skiing, freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.Str / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi prepares to take the Winter Olympics torch from Vancouver, environmentalists are sounding the alarm.

The southern city, surrounded by the pristine forests and rivers of the North Caucasus mountains, is hosting the 2014 games. But as the four-year countdown begins, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace say unique habitats have been destroyed, spring water has been contaminated by heavy metal waste and the construction of the facilities is hazardously amateur.

Their protests having apparently been ignored — the two environmental organizations have withdrawn from a government-led oversight commission and are instead appealing to the United Nations in the hope of shaming authorities into action.

"Ecologists aren't washing their hands of the issue, but the opportunity to work in constructive cooperation with the authorities has vanished," Igor Chestin, head of the Russian branch of WWF, said during a tour Friday of Olympic construction sites.

Threat to Mzymta River
The Sochi games will be held in two clusters outside the city itself. Ice rink-based events will be held at a coastal cluster, while a mountain cluster will feature the skiing, snowboarding and bobsledding, among other sports.

Activists say the chief environmental threat is to the Mzymta River, which connects the two clusters. Thousands of beech trees have been felled to clear the path for a road and rail link that skirts the river.

"The river will die completely," Chestin said during a car ride up the valley toward the mountain cluster in the village of Krasnaya Polyana.

"Wildlife has already suffered and will continue to suffer," he added, pointing to a cleared area of land.

WWF cuts ties
The WWF announced last week it was suspending cooperation with the Sochi Olympic Committee and has already cut all ties with Olympstroi, the state agency overseeing Olympic construction. No one at either organization could be reached for immediate comment Friday.

Andrei Petrov, the World Heritage program coordinator at Greenpeace Russia, told The Associated Press that the organization had also ceased consultations with the government.

Petrov said Russian legislation has been changed to allow the clearing of endangered trees to accommodate the Olympic construction.

"This is the kind of thing that is utterly unacceptable in a normal country," he said. "Laws are being changed overnight to suit somebody's interests."

The WWF has made its concerns known in writing to the UNESCO World Heritage Center and the United Nations Environment Program, and is hoping international pressure will force Russia to address them.

"We are changing tactics," Chestin said.

Nature reserve borders redrawn
The activists also decried what they called the arbitrary redrawing of the boundaries of national nature reserves to justify further commercial building. Contaminants are dumped into rivers and the habitats of bears and birds are destroyed to clear the way for ski runs, they said.

"During construction of the buildings and roads, hazardous waste such as heavy metals enter the river and kills all life," Chestin said.

Asked whether he hoped Russia would re-engage with the green movement before the games, Chestin said the ball was in the officials' court.

"Russia is playing first violin in the Olympics," he said. "But the games are an international event. Global organizations like the U.N. play a huge role, and their voice should be heard."