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#18 - JRL 7210
Putin tells govt to get environment act together
By Clara Ferreira-Marques

MOSCOW, June 4 (Reuters) - Russia must rethink its environmental policy if it is to overcome a Soviet-era legacy of heavy industrial pollution, acid rain and tonnes of nuclear waste, President Vladimir Putin told top officials on Wednesday.

Putin called for a single body to manage Russia's environmental policy -- currently spread across at least five ministries and a myriad of intermediate government bodies.

"We need a single government policy on the environment," Putin told his advisory State Council in the Kremlin on the eve of World Environment Day.

"This is one of the conditions for dynamic economic development. It is only the illusions of some managers that by exploiting nature they can boost profits and beat competitors."

During the last years of communist rule, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pledged to clean up the Soviet Union's worst ecological mistakes -- ranging from a decision to drain the Central Asian Aral Sea to dumping toxic waste into Lake Baikal.

But with the collapse of communism and the financial turmoil of the 1990s, few initiatives came to fruition.

"Up to 15 percent of Russia's regions are in critical or near-critical condition," Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

Millions of Russians still live in areas where levels of air pollution exceed international health norms. Millions more live in ecological disaster zones including the industrial wastelands of the Urals and Siberia.

An official report published last year found that some 300,000 Russians die annually from pollution-related diseases.

Putin said companies themselves should be held responsible for the ecological cost of their production. Russia is home to some of the world's worst polluters, including sprawling heavy industry and mining conglomerates.

"In Russia there is effectively no legal mechanism which allows us to extract compensation from companies for ecological damage," he was quoted by Interfax as saying. "Because of this, we run into chronic lack of funds for ecological programmes...."

In its report to Putin, the advisory council on which sit the governors of the country's 89 regions called for Russia to ratify the U.N. Kyoto protocol on carbon dioxide emissions before a Moscow climate conference set for September.

Under a complex weighting system, the agreement cannot come into force until Russia, responsible for 17 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, ratifies the deal.

Despite publicly voiced scepticism from Russia's scientists and officials, Moscow has repeatedly vowed to ratify the deal, while offering no concrete date.

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