SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - The first warning of the problems that eventually swept away Irina Vorochkova’s house near Russia’s Olympic city of Sochi came when the garden began shifting, then the ground slid away downhill towards a river.
As builders worked feverishly to get the Black Sea resort ready for winter games so closely tied to President Vladimir Putin’s legacy, they failed to notice the effects their work was having on the village below.
Until the walls of Vorochkova’s two-storey home fell. Tell-tale cracks snaked through neighboring houses.
The 58-year-old housewife now lives in an aluminum shack and is fighting a legal battle for compensation over damage she blames on Olympic subcontractors. Other villages near Sochi offer similar complaints of ruined homes, illegal landfills and broken promises that their lives would not be poisoned by construction.
“It started slowly with little things, like the poles for the clothesline were not quite in the same place, the borders of the garden had moved. Then the front of my house fell off,” she said.
Putin is expected to spend more than $50 billion to show off Russia’s modern face at the Games in Sochi, a Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountains. Moscow promised to set “new environmental standards” in Olympic construction.
Complaints about construction, along with international concerns about gay rights and security, threaten Putin’s efforts to improve Russia’s image through the games.
The Sochi 2014 organizing committee says construction has minimized harmful carbon emissions, and companies carrying out construction say they are sticking to their promises to meet international standards in protecting the environment.
“The air and water in Sochi have become cleaner than in December 2007,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said this month, praising the modernization of local transport and environmental protection work.
But some ecologists say the damage is only the beginning and that construction may have put the region in the path of potential ecological disasters, including poisoned drinking water and flooding.
In the village of Akhshtyr, a few kilometers up the road from Chereshnya, the wells used by villagers for centuries have dried up since Russian Railways started digging a quarry in the adjacent foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
The quarries mined by Russian Railways, a huge state company run by Putin’s long-time ally and friend Vladimir Yakunin, have provided rock used in the construction of Olympic venues.
Trucks rumble past every few minutes, carrying stones to the construction sites below.
One villager, Alexander Koropov, said that when construction started, local authorities gathered villagers to explain that they would soon be linked into a natural gas grid and a regional water system, delivering modern utilities.
“We thought they would bring us civilization, development, but instead we are now living worse than the Indians did on American reservations 200 years ago,” said Koropov, standing in the orchard where he used to grow persimmons to sell.
The trucks constantly haul off the rock. Villagers say the trucks bring in trash from other construction sites, dumping it in the gorge within walking distance.
A dust cloud covers the village.
Russian Railways says it paid a fine for the illegal dumping and has since stopped the practice, though residents say trucks continue to haul trash into the landfill.
Since the wells dried up, the company has delivered almost daily barrels of water to Akhshtyr residents.
“I don’t even care that they didn’t keep their promises. It’s the fact that they’ve made this place unlivable now,” said Koropov.
While the trash itself poses no direct danger, rainwater flowing into the ground and into the nearby Mzymta River, which is used by Sochi residents for drinking water, is at risk of being contaminated by the waste, say local environmentalists.
“When the substances accumulate (in the water supply), it can have a toxic effect, because no one knows exactly what those materials in the landfill are comprised of, where they have come from,” said Yulia Naberezhnaya, spokeswoman for the Russian Geographical Society in Sochi.
Naberezhnaya is one of many Sochi environmental activists who New York-based Human Rights Watch says have been harassed over her work.
Other environmental activists have had criminal cases opened against them, including Suren Gazaryan, who received asylum in Estonia after facing criminal accusations which he called politically motivated.
In 2008, months after Putin won the right to hold the Games in Sochi, a U.N. environmental group paid a visit to the area.
After meeting government ministers, Olympic contractor Olympstroy and local non-governmental groups, the delegation concluded the Olympic project was aimed at economic development “in which environmental aspects play only a minor role”.
“Any sustained efforts to improve the environmental performance will probably have only a minor effect compared to the environmental damage that will be inflicted due to the overall development related to the Games,” said the United Nations Environmental Programme in a mission report.
In the village of Kudepsta, the territory of a former Soviet collective farm have been turned into the factory grounds for several cement producers for Olympic construction. Landfills for construction waste also dot the grounds.
Rubber boots and orange construction helmets lie half-buried in the ground.
“Of all the people who work and have businesses on this land, no one has documents allowing them to work here. Neither the drivers who deliver the cement out nor the ones who bring the trash in,” said Natalya Vorobyova, who has led several pickets outside the grounds of the old collective farm.
Kudepsta, like many other down-river villages, lies around the Imeretinsky lowlands where rain and melted snow drain into the Black Sea through a series of rivers and swamplands.
According to Russian data, Sochi receives 1.7 meters of rainfall every year, more than anywhere else in the country apart from a chain of islands near Japan.
Once a stopping place for migrating birds, much of that area has been turned into Olympic venues, including the Fisht Stadium, where the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies will be held.
Environmental experts say that Olympic construction which has consisted of pouring soil into lowland swamps helped cause the flooding that created a state of emergency in the area in September and could increase the risk for more flooding.
“Those rains were a test to see how prepared we were for a relatively normal occurrence. And it showed the extent to which our Olympic construction failed after getting rid of old drainage systems and installing new ones that don’t work,” said Valery Suchkov, a lawyer specializing in environmental law.
Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska’s company Transstroy was responsible for much of the work to create a foundation for the Olympic venues.
A spokeswoman for the company, Yelena Stakhiyeva, said Transstroy had fulfilled its obligations but that another company had been subcontracted to build the drainage system.
Months after the flooding, residents complain that the ground even on a sunny day is still damp.
“The ground never really dries, it’s been wet for months,” said Kudepsta resident Alexander Tarasovich, poking his boot in to the soft, black dirt.
For most residents, they see the attention that the Olympics will bring as a final chance to be heard, but some barely have the strength left to fight.
“I‘m just tired, it’s too much,” says Vorochkova, with tears in her eyes, closing the door to her aluminum shack that sits across from the ruin of her old house.
“All I want to do is sleep,” she said.
Editing by Timothy Heritage and Ralph Boulton