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Two Years After Garbage Avalanche, Sochi Homes Remain Buried

A banner reading "Kuban - territory of quality" in a pile of trash. Kuban is a nickname for the Krasnodar Region, where Sochi is located. Maria Antonova

SOCHI, Krasnodar Region — Ever since the seaside resort of Sochi won the rights to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city administration has promised residents that the ensuing construction and tourism boom would mean a better life for everyone.

But the promise rings hollow for residents of a small neighborhood near the local airport, who have been homeless since a garbage landslide almost two years ago. Five houses were destroyed and the neighborhood's only road remains blocked.

The homeowners have been fighting ever since — so far, unsuccessfully — to receive compensation from the municipal government, which began dumping massive amounts of garbage in Sochi's only landfill after preparations for the games began.

"Before, we didn't even know about the dump — it was somewhere up on the hill, far away," said Andrei Markaryan, who built a house here in 1993 and lived in it with his parents until the April 2008 landslide.

Markaryan, in his late 50s, said his elderly father had been working in the yard that day and barely managed to escape the massive junk heap.

"In 2005, the dump began moving slightly. There were more and more people in Sochi, and trucks were bringing in waste 24 hours a day," he said.

The neighborhood, bearing the romantic name Oryol Izumrud, or "Eagle Emerald," was a collective farm until the 1990s, when the land was sold off to people happy to snap up plots surrounded by orchards.

But the once idyllic neighborhood — about 1.5 kilometers from the Black Sea — is now virtually uninhabitable, particularly when the weather is warm.

The temperature reached a record 18.9 degrees Celsius on Jan. 31, and it seemed even higher in the humidity around the collapsed houses. The rotting garbage stinks year round and catches fire regularly in the summer months.

Locals believe that the landslide was precipitated by the hundreds of dump trucks that were unloading soil from Olympics-related construction sites to put out the fires.

"When we told [Mayor Anatoly] Pakhomov that the landslide was not merely an accident, he told us we would never be able prove it in court," said Pyotr Kostousov, who has been turned away by several lawyers who said it would be "pointless" to try to sue.

The situation here underscores the perils that a small city can face preparing to host a global sports event.

Sochi residents have also complained about land appropriations for Olympics construction and environmental damage to the region, which survives almost exclusively on tourism. Many are skeptical that the city will be able to maintain the massive infrastructure being built for the games after 2014, despite pledges from the federal and regional government to boost tourism there.

The city, together with the Sochi Olympic Committee, announced a "zero waste" program in 2008 that would upgrade existing waste management facilities and create infrastructure for recycling.

The landfill — opened in the 1940s as a temporary dump — was never supposed to hold the amount of garbage it eventually received. Only eight hectares on paper, its real area is now almost twice that size.

Sochi authorities finally closed the dump last month as part of the zero waste program, and the city is building a new landfill and waste treatment center in a different area.

Pakhomov — who was elected Sochi's mayor in April and is the fourth person to lead the city since 2008 — traveled to Moscow last week to promote the preparations for the games.

"All Sochi residents understand perfectly that the Olympic construction is pure happiness," he told reporters on Feb. 5. "Our city will receive a great Olympic heritage, and all Sochi residents understand this very well. Sochians are truly happy people who will soon live in a city with favorable living conditions."

But locals say they've had enough of the city's promises.

"After the landslide, the city kept promising us for a year and a half that our case is being attended to," said Pyotr Kostousov, whose house was dragged about 40 meters by the landslide and has since been overgrown by Sochi's subtropical plants.

After losing their patience, the neighbors went to Sochi prosecutors in November to complain about City Hall's inaction, he said. Though the prosecutors showed sympathy, the subsequent lawsuit against the city has yet to be heard in court.  

A person answering the phone in Pakhomov's office directed all questions regarding the landslide to the Adler district administration. A representative for the Adler administration refused to answer any questions without Pakhomov's approval.

"The hearing has been pushed back five times," Kostousov said. He and his family of five, along with three other families from the neighborhood, are still living on bunk beds in a nearby sanatorium where they were housed by the Emergency Situations Ministry.

One resident, however, stayed behind.  

Andrei Shingaryov, a wiry Sochi native, had his house and land completely submerged by the wave. After the incident, he used a crane to drag an abandoned train car to his plot and set up an office there. He showers at his mother's house in the city and eats dinner with his wife and kids, who also live elsewhere in Sochi.

"They stay out of this," he said, gesturing at the decades of garbage surrounding his rusting abode.

Shingaryov has been battling with the city for land ownership documents and recently received an official valuation of his buried land. His industrial hermitage is packed with his children's drawings, salvaged books and computer parts, and volumes of correspondence with the city administration.

A makeshift sink is curtained off discreetly with a banner that he found at the dump advertising the Sochi Olympics as the "Gateway to the Future."

Outside, he has built a mock captain's deck, complete with maps and a barometer, facing the Black Sea. "I want to be a forex trader and sail the southern seas," he said.

But first, his goal is to receive compensation — to the tune of 4.6 million rubles ($153,000) — for his 800 square meters of buried land and destroyed home.

While there is a plan to recultivate the wasteland, it is unclear what exactly the project will entail.

Alexander Goldobin, an expert with the office of housing and utilities in the Sochi municipal government, said the project was still "undergoing an environmental impact assessment" and that no work would be done before May.

The recultivation project will receive about 1.4 billion rubles ($46.5 million) through the Olympics budget. Goldobin denied, however, that any of the garbage would be removed.

"The plan is to cover it up with some inert material, plant grass on top and treat the escaping gas and liquid," he said.

He could not say who was responsible for dealing with locals whose houses were crushed, and he denied that the local river had been harmed by encroaching refuse.

The residents, however, are skeptical of the plan. The river Herota, which flows through the neighborhood, has turned a turbid shade of brown below the dump.

"The waste sits on top of underground springs, and nobody knows where they surface," Shingaryov said. "They'll probably install water treatment equipment for the Olympics, but who is going to repair it if it breaks in five or six years?"

Moreover, the colossal mass of trash continues to shift and slide. Shingaryov says his long-retired train car has traveled about 20 meters since the avalanche. Efforts to fortify walls around the site are bound to fail, he said, because geologists who have visited could not find solid rock even 22 meters below the surface.

Despite rising prices and the availability of cheap charter flights to Turkey and Egypt, Sochi still attracts millions of tourists annually. The resort, with hundreds of sanatoriums dotting its rocky coast, was Russia's main Soviet-era summer destination.

"This city is unbelievable. People come to vacation right near the dump — The smell has been around for ages, yet people keep coming year after year," said Alexander Ovchinnikov, another neighborhood resident who bought a piece of land in 2002 and moved to Sochi from Kamchatka.

River water displaced by the avalanche flooded half his property, which is now home to frogs and migrating fowl.

Standing at his garbage outpost, Shingaryov gestured toward points of interest in his domain: a man searching for scrap metal a stone's-throw away, a section of the river that has been blocked by waste and earth.

Further off, the river's brown current flows into the sea and a man performs exercises in his white briefs.

"When you write about me, don't say I live in a dump. I live in Sochi," Shingaryov said, waving toward the Petrozavodskaya Ulitsa street sign hanging from his wagon. "But don't call it resort-city Sochi either. It's just Sochi."

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