Illegal sand extraction from the Nistru and Prut Rivers: some get wealthy while the country has losses

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The Republic of Moldova has two inland waterways of international importance: the Nistru and the Prut Rivers. Representatives of the fleets of these two rivers insist that they must constantly clean these waterways and every year on this pretext, hundreds of tons of sand, gravel and stones are illegally extracted. Materials are sold illegally, nobody keeps track of them. Most often, work is done in places where, in fact, ships are not sailing, say employees of the Ministry of Environment. Furthermore, the extraction of sand from rivers is not a commercial activity provided for by the Licensing Agency, and this means that people who practice it violate the law. Although in the explanatory note to the draft law, the authorities estimate damage estimated at two million lei in the period 2002 - 2014, the National Anti-Corruption Center has started just one criminal case over the last five years.

One of the regions of Nistru where sand has been extracted for years is near the village Onitcani, district Criuleni. At the outskirts of the village, there is an improvised indicator for those interested in buying construction materials extracted directly from the river. Local people told us that a firm used to sell sand and gravel here, and prices reached 3,000 lei for a big truck. Several months ago, the "business" moved to another sector of the river. In Onitcani, the equipment and the improvised housing for people who directed the work, were abandoned.

In fact, due to massive sand mining on some segments, the River looks like a swamp. On the islands located on segment Soroca- Dubasari, there are a lot of reeds and other vegetation specific for lakes. Under the bridge connecting towns Tighina and Tiraspol, where some years ago, the river bottom was covered with sand and gravel, there is just mud. Neither the authorities nor the local people consider these obvious signs of degradation of the main sources of drinking and technical water of the country.

According to calculations by relevant specialists, in Soviet times, over 73 million cubic meters of sand and gravel, a catastrophic figure for the river, were extracted from the Nistru River. In the early 80s of last century, at the instance of the Science Academy, extraction of these minerals was stopped because the acquisition had reached the riverbed and increased the risk of water disappearance in tectonic fissures. But in 90s, sand and gravel were extracted in high amounts. Tatiana Sarapanovschi, deputy director of the reservation "Iagarlac" near town Dubasari, said that in 1999-2008, 500,000 cubic meters of sand and gravel were extracted from the Nistru River using suction dredges. Meanwhile, the 2008 flood left the river without 300,000 cubic meters of sand.

Interests authorized by normative acts

The extractions continue over the last years, as they were protected by the provisions of a law criticized by environmentalists.  On the pretext of naval transport development, the Ministry of Transport and Road Infrastructure promoted in August 2012, the Law no. 1894 on domestic shipping with the help of the Government. A year later, on 21 August 2013, the law was passed in Parliament. The document was contested by over 40 NGOs in the Republic of Moldova and the Odessa region. The Ecological Movement of Moldova, Association ECO-Tiras, Environmental Working Group of the National Participation Council and scholars informed in detail the authorities about the disastrous impact of extracting sand and gravel from the rivers of the country under the guise of deepening their riverbeds. NGOs emphasized that the law, in the variant that was promoted, will generate both the destruction of river ecosystems, will foster the shadow economy and encourage corruption in the system.

Alecu Renita, president of the Ecological Movement of Moldova claims that he asked that the bill include clear provisions on environmental protection. "We proposed that Article 6 of the Law is supplemented with two additional paragraphs as follows: sand and gravel extracted from the minor riverbed, including under the arrangement and maintaining works of the fairway, should be placed upstream on the extraction site to form places for fish reproduction, following the draft approved by the central environmental authority; Marketing the sand and pebble extracted from the minor riverbeds is prohibited", says Alecu Renita. Also, the environmentalist claims that the authors of the document, lawmakers and the President of the country, who promulgated the law, have not considered the arguments and proposals of scientists and civil society.

"It's clear why. The companies involved in the illegal extraction of sand and gravel make big money from the sale of these materials", says Alecu Renita.

Experts of the Center for Analysis and Prevention of Corruption (CAPC) warned on the risks contained by certain provisions of the document. They carried out an analysis of the document corruptibility. Thus, the CAPC analysis showed that the project could harm indirectly the society, in particular, the right to a healthy environment. "The draft law does not solve the problem of protecting aquatic fauna and flora and adjacent areas under arrangement and maintaining works of the fairway," the report said.

Damages of hundreds, fines ten times smaller

Although extracting sand from rivers is not a licensed activity and therefore people who do it, commit an illegality, several enterprises have developed over the years real businesses on the account of natural resources that must remain intangible. While the "hunters” of sand move periodically their equipment along the rivers, the websites are full of announcements on "Marketing sand and gravel from the river" necessary for construction.

One of the companies that has been extracting sand from the Prut River for years is State Enterprise "Portul Fluvial Ungheni", responsible for the smooth running shipping operation on this river. In March 2013, State Fishery Service wrote on its website that the State Enterprise “Portul Fluvial Ungheni” performs works of extracting useful minerals (sand) from the Prut river basin, which is then sold to individuals and legal entities, in such a way they violate the provisions of many laws.

"This state-owned enterprise has been violating for a long period, deliberately and demonstratively the existing environmental legislation by carrying out so-called works of cleaning and deepening of the minor riverbed of Prut, for maintaining waterways and regularization of the river course.  Actually, it illegally extracts sand and gravel from the riverbed for sales", the source said.

In 2015, the administration of this enterprise was penalized twice with fines estimated at 8,000 lei each for illegal extraction of sand and gravel from the Prut River, said Grigore Vlas, chief of Ecology Inspection Ungheni. "During the unannounced audit conducted in September 2015 jointly with the National Anti-Corruption Center (CNA), we determined that by its activity in this field, the enterprise caused the state a loss estimated at 369,000 lei. We penalized them with a sum of 8,000 lei and the CNA has filed a criminal case", said Grigore Vlas.

Anti-corruption officers confirmed that a criminal case was started on the name of the management of the State Enterprise “Portul Fluvial Ungheni”. Otherwise, this is the only case filed by CNA for illegal extraction in the last 5 years. In an official response to the Centre for Investigative Journalism, CNA representatives said that the administration has breached many legal provisions that prohibit the extraction of sand from the riverbed.

"The decision-makers of "Portul Fluvial Ungheni “violated the rights and powers granted by law and carried out the illegal extraction of useful minerals (sand) under the situation from 30.09.2015 with a total volume of 1,850 cubic meters from the riverbed of Prut river within the village Semeni, district Ungheni, that was stored on landfills on the riverbank and on barges", runs the statement of CNA.

Representatives of the port make reference to the law

On the other hand, the administration  of the port refers to the law on domestic shipping, permission of the leadership of the port Giurgiulesti and the activity Program of the Government for 2015-2018 stipulating “ the extension and modernization of the port capacities and ensuring the navigability of the rivers Nistru and Prut. "I talked with Vladimir Medvedev, interim manager of the port on the day when he was dismissed.  "This is the way, our ministry appreciated my activity of 40 years in the field" he said, without giving details. According to Medvedev, Ungheni Ecological Inspection and law bodies are wrong when they ask sanctioning people who extract sand and gravel from rivers. He realized that the company which he managed, has been extracting sand from the Prut River for several decades, though this is prohibited by law.

"They do this everywhere. We did this in the soviet period. This was banned as of 1985.  All these thirty years, we and the other ports have extracted sand and gravel from the Prut and Nistru Rivers. We are requested: show the license. The Licensing Chamber tells us this activity is not licensed. A law says one thing, another law contradicts it. Actually, the explanation is simple: someone makes money from all this confusion, or namely corruption flourishes where there are many restrictions. In half a year we had 20 controls, we are involved in several lawsuits. None of this would happen if we had some clear legislative, well-thought regulations", said Vladimir Medvedev.

They moved their equipment on the left bank of Nistru River

As for the Nistru River, there are many enterprises specialized in illegal extraction and sale of sand and gravel.  Some enterprises extracted hundreds of tons of sand and gravel in the region of settlements- Parata-Cosnita which they sold and got cash.  The companies contracted the equipment from the ports Ungheni and Bender and they got the consent of the leadership of the Port Giurgiulesti under the guise of deepening the fairway navigation. This was confirmed to us by Anatolie Grajdian, environmental inspector in Dubasari, currently working under the Ecological Inspection of district Criuleni. He said that after cases of these companies were sent to the prosecution, three of them ceased their activity, and the fourth, SRL "Romirdo" changed place and continues extractions in another area.

In September 2014, a committee of the Ministry of Environment performed an unannounced control at these companies. The results of the control (widely publicized at the time) showed that a complex of equipment that extracted illegally sand from the Nistru River, was placed near the village Onitcani, district Criuleni. Along with the working equipment there was a barge loaded with freshly extracted sand. A floating crane transposed the sand on the shore where they were stored hundreds of tons of this material, which was loaded with excavators in trucks. The auditors have determined that the works were carried out by the State Enterprise "Portul Fluvial Ungheni” with equipment leased from “Portul Fluvial Bender”.  

Though the former minister of Environment Dorin Dusciac ordered the punishment of all people involved in the scheme, the sand thefts continue. Thus, in July 2015 the equipment of the enterprise "Portul Fluvial Rabnita" extracted sand and gravel from the Nistru River in the region of settlements Cot and Climautii de Jos. The information was reported by the Ecological Inspection Soldanesti.

Crane operator Vasile Malacinschi showed to inspectors an order signed by the interim director of the port Rabnita, I.Gladcov. The order wrote that the works were coordinated with some officials from Tiraspol. They were warned that these works are illegal, according to the legislation of the Republic of Moldova and the employees of the enterprise promised to comply with the order. Some days later, the equipment was removed. In late October 2015, the equipment was installed on the same segment of the river, but on the left bank, controlled by the so-called transnistrian authorities. We tried to find out about the activity of the Port Bender, who authorizes these works and we did not get any answer.

Impact is disastrous

While companies involved in illegal sand extraction are not punished, environmentalists say that we are on the verge of ecological disaster. According to Ilia Trombitki, head of the NGO "ECO-Tiras", sand and gravel extraction for a period 7-15 years will decrease the layer of water in the river by 50-150 centimeters. "When a bill on gravel and sand extraction from rivers of the country appeared in the Parliament during the communist regime, we started consultations with colleagues abroad. Then, the president got a lot of letters from all over the world; the authors argued how dangerous such a law was.  The draft was withdrawn but the government did not take into account the arguments", says Ilia Trombitki.

Ecological expert Ivan Rusev in Odessa says that the level of rivers in basin Nistru flowing on the territory of the Ukraine and from where there were extracted high amounts of sand and gravel, reduced by about 15 cm, the level of ground water decreased considerably and a lot of wells dry. The situation is same in many villages in the Republic of Moldova where dozens of wells dried up in recent years.

According to international practice, extracting sand and gravel from the rivers where there is at least one dam, is inadmissible, because they do not allow to sand and gravel to migrate from the top of the river to bare places. The Nistru River has three dams - two on the territory of Ukraine and the power plant in Dubasari.

Another environmentalist, Pavel Ignatiev, Chairman of the public ecology Council in Tiraspol claims that the sand and the gravel are the main natural filters of the river that contribute to self-cleaning of water. "Without them, we will have to spend additional financial resources for drinking water purification", he said.

Ecology cases, neglected                                               

Alecu Renita, president of the Ecological Movement of Moldova (MEM) said in a recent press conference that over the years MEM has gathered a number of ecological cases which have not been solved. One of them refers to the prohibition of sand extraction from the riverbeds of Prut and Nistru.

Ministry of the Environment has recently proposed a draft decision on amending and completing the Law on the Republic of Moldova's domestic shipping and completing art. 228 from the Criminal Code of the Republic of Moldova. If the document is approved by the Parliament, the illegal extraction and commercialization of sand, gravel from the minor riverbeds of Nistru and Prut will be subject to criminal penalties.

The investigation was carried out within the Campaign "Journalists for Transparency in Public Funds Management", carried out  by the Center for Investigative Journalism, with the support of the US Embassy in the Republic of Moldova.