Source AP ©

Official brushes off environmental concern over Olympic bid

A top Russian environmental official brushed aside concerns Thursday that proposals for hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi would severely damage local wildlife.

Sochi, one of three finalists for the games, spans diverse ecological zones ranging from the palm-lined Black Sea coast to the soaring, snowcapped Caucasus Mountains. Much of the region is relatively undeveloped and environmentalists say massive construction and an influx of people could do severe harm to animals and plants that have thrived in pristine conditions.

Oleg Mitvol, the deputy head of Rosprirodnadzor environment safety watchdog, dismissed concerns that construction in the mountains would disrupt hoofed animals' migration routes - saying there were more pressing issues.

"There are questions regarding the sewage that goes into the sea from old pipes; there are questions to do with the fact that there are no waste processing companies - there are 2,500 rubbish dumps there. In any event we need to invest serious money," he said.

"If we don't invest money there today, there won't be 2,500 waste dumps - there will be 5,000," Mitvol said. "And I don't know what is more pleasant for hoofed mammals: to walk among waste dumps or look at a ski slope."

Russia last year announced an extensive program to develop the Sochi region as a year-round resort, regardless of whether it wins the bid for the games, and officials have said environmental issues are a top concern of the program.

After environmentalists raised criticism of the development program and the Olympic bid, Russia formed an Ecological Council to discuss guidelines for the development.

The council held its first meeting on Wednesday.

"The critical first meeting of the Ecological Council confirms that Sochi 2014 will follow through with its promise to safeguard the region's natural riches," Sochi 2014 bid committee chairman Dmitry Chernyshenko said in a statement.

Sochi's infrastructure and sports facilities are less developed than the other two finalists for the games - Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea. The International Olympic Committee is to vote July 4 for the winning bid.

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