Imperial Russia did not have a unified legislation on water pollution comparable, for example, to the Rivers Pollution Prevention Act of 1876 in Britain. This did not mean that the tsarist government made no attempt to protect water resources and that the questions of industrial discharge and water pollution were not legally regulated. Rather, their regulation was dispersed across several legal statutes and decrees, often in unclear, repetitive or somewhat contradictory formulations, which meant that even contemporary bureaucrats and experts found it difficult to apply.
|Czar Alexander II|
The basic principles of water protection were stipulated in the state legislation such as the Medical and Building Statutes and the Statute of Industry. The Medical Statute forbade “contaminating water in places where it was taken for internal consumption by throwing into it harmful substances or in any other way” (ruled in 1871) and obliged local police and municipalities to ensure that “rivers and springs in towns and villages were not polluted.” The Building Statute and the Statute of Industry prohibited the construction of “mills and factories harmful for the purity of air and water upstream of towns.” This norm was inherited from the early nineteenth century and its interpretation and application proved difficult in the later contexts of urban and industrial growth. In 1904, the Senate had to clarify that it applied only to particularly dangerous or poisonous industries, while all other factories could be allowed on condition of proper waste decontamination.
State legislation was supplemented with local regulations and decrees, issued by provincial governments, zemstvos (rural self-government institutions) or municipalities. These institutions were responsible for public health and sanitation in their respective regions and controlled the cleanliness of natural waterways and sanitary conditions at industrial enterprises. The permission of a provincial government or, in some cases, of a municipality, was necessary to open a factory, and this gave local authorities a mechanism to influence factory owners and make them comply with sanitary norms.
Local decrees of Moscow, Vladimir, Tver, and many other zemstvos prohibited littering, contaminating or dumping and draining waste into natural waterways that were used by local population for domestic needs or watering the livestock. These regulations were particularly strict in regard to draining fecal human wastes, either from residential houses or factories, while formulations about liquid industrial waste were more lenient. Thus, although draining dirty waters from factories into natural waterways, valleys and lowlands was forbidden, the decrees of the Moscow zemstvo read that "in those cases where local circumstances or any other important reasons preclude the immediate interruption of such discharge, it can be temporarily allowed on a case-to-case basis, on condition that it is decontaminated and discolored with the help of filtration fields, sedimentation pools, filters or chemically, and that its owner organized a sufficient number of wells for the local population."
Legal sanctions against violators of water protection norms were formulated in the Statute of Magistrates. Prepared as a part of the judicial reform of Alexander II in 1864, this statute distinguished between the crime of illegal discharge of waste and the crime of water contamination. It stipulated a 100-ruble fine for connecting household cesspools or factory drains to city gutters and channels without the necessary permission, and a 200-ruble fine for an illegal discharge of domestic or industrial waste into rivers and streams, regardless of its impact on the waterways. Altering water quality was punished separately. A small fine of 10 rubles was imposed for littering waterways with stones, sand or other substances that “could not cause the contamination of water”. Contaminating water used for human consumption or watering of animals was persecuted according to the article §111, which in its original formulation of 1864 prescribed the fine of up to 25 rubles or a seven-day arrest. However, following the revisions of 1893 and 1906, the maximum punishment was increased to 100 rubles or a one-month arrest and, in cases where polluted water became harmful for humans, to 300 rubles or three-month arrest. Such a considerable toughening of the punishment for water pollution may indicate a growing public attention to the problems of industrial wastes and river protection towards the turn of the twentieth century.
There are several remarkable aspects of these regulations. The first is their rather narrow utilitarian approach. Water pollution was seen as a local problem and waterways were deemed worth protecting only if they were used by local population for domestic needs or livestock-raising. This excluded not only the value of riverine environments per se, but also their importance for other social and economic purposes such as fishing, agriculture, recreation or industry itself, although contemporaries were clearly aware of these connections. A second aspect is the lack of distinction among the violators. The law treated individual house-owners, draining their domestic waste, and industrial giants, discharging thousands of cubic meters of waste waters every day, in a similar way. Most important of all, perhaps, was the striking vagueness of the legal formulations: they did not specify what exactly littering [zasoreniye], pollution [zagryazneniye] or contamination [porcha] was, which waters were considered dirty, how precisely they should be handled and which degree of decontamination and purification was to be achieved to discharge the treated waste into rivers without breaking the law. In other words, the law obliged factory owners to obtain a set of necessary permissions for draining industrial waste into rivers, but those permissions did not guarantee them from being persecuted; at the same time, the law required waste decontamination, without explaining what was expected from an industrialist and how it could be accomplished.
This lack of clear definitions and explanations satisfied neither the industrialists nor the advocates of water protection. In the mid-1890s, the Ministry of Finance, then headed by an influential liberal minister Sergey Witte, attempted to address the issue of industrial pollution. Witte generally opposed any practices that could hinder Russia’s industrial growth, and his attention to the questions of waste treatment and its regulation was a part of a broader effort to create a coherent legal framework on the organization of industrial enterprises and their supervision. In 1896, the Ministry’s commission, that also included leading hygienists, economists and factory inspectors, proposed that the punishment should be inflicted not for the fact of water contamination but for the absence or inadequate use of the waste treatment facilities prescribed by the law. However, this formulation, that would make legislators (and not industrialists) responsible for finding an effective technological solution, was not translated into a legal norm.
The practical conundrums, hidden in the incoherent legislation, were admitted even by more conservative circles of Russian elites, such as the office of the Moscow Governor-General Prince Sergey Romanov (the uncle of the emperor Nicholas II), that advocated a more restrictive stand towards the industry: "[W]e cannot leave the Moskva River and other waterways in their current state and, what is even worse, continue to pollute them, permitting new factories; on the other hand, we cannot act solely according to the law [edinstvenno sushchestvuyushchim zakonnym sposobom], because in this case the law, without any doubts, does not fully correspond to the changed conditions of life. Factories exist on the basis of legal permissions, while production involves more and more chemical processes with poisonous waste; there is no filter that can decontaminate these wastes, while sumps do not reach their goals; therefore, it is necessary to elaborate new principles of water and soil decontamination and adjust them to numerous important practical considerations."
The Russian Empire was not alone in its endeavor to resolve the questions of water pollution or to at least specify what it was. At the turn of the twentieth century, other countries were struggling with the same problems; in fact, a developed and specific legislation on water pollution was rather an exception than a norm. In Germany, water laws remained largely in the responsibility of the regional authorities, which could choose to “sacrifice” rivers for industrial needs, as it happened in the Ruhr region. In France, altering water quality was criminalized, but mostly went unabated due to the lack of adequate measurement facilities, while the adoption of a comprehensive legislation on pollution was repeatedly opposed by the Parliament. In the United States, the first federal legislation on industrial waste, the so-called Refuse Act of 1899, was used to simply preserve waterways for navigation rather than to prevent environmental damage. Even in Britain, which had a comparatively advanced and coherent legislation on the subject, there were still no clear legal definitions of pollution. The Rivers Pollution Act of 1876 required treatment of “poisonous, noxious or polluting liquids” before discharging them into a watercourse “using the best practicable and reasonably available means”. However, the existing technological solutions were often inadequate, and it was not until 1912 that the quality standards based on chemical and biological measurements were proposed for the effluents and river waters, and even then their implementation was hindered by the onset of the First World War. There was thus no successful foreign model that Russia could easily follow and no international standard it could adopt. In this situation, it was the search for and the negotiation of definitions of pollution and waste treatment that would shape the practices of waste management in Russia in the last imperial decades.And the abstract:
The article explores how Russia’s governmental authorities, scientists, engineers, and industrialists engaged with the problem of factory waste and water pollution. It argues that industrial pollution of rivers emerged as a subject of considerable public debate in Russia in the 1880s and the enforcement of water protection laws grew stricter towards the end of the Empire. However, the vagueness of the legislation and the lack of clear quality standards opened the way for contingency and arbitrariness in the persecution [prosecution?] of violators. This persecution did not lead to the reduction of pollution in the imperial period, but it raised awareness of the dangers of industrial discharge for riverine environments.