MOSCOW (AP) - Already weak environmental protection in the world's largest country may disappear altogether since President Vladimir Putin abolished Russia's main environmental watchdog agency, ecological groups warned Tuesday.
Putin last week eliminated the State Committee for Environmental Protection, which was responsible for monitoring all aspects of the environment except nuclear safety.
Environmental protection was placed under the Ministry on Natural Resources, which helps enterprises make the most of Russia's mining, oil and timber resources.
"The ministry for natural resources is not interested in defending the environment," said Yevgeny Usov, a spokesman for Greenpeace's Russian chapter.
"They were created specifically to exploit natural resources such as oil and minerals, water resources - they aren't interested in ecological affairs," he charged.
The decision was part of an apparent cost-cutting move to trim Russia's unwieldy number of ministries and committees. Ecologists said it suggests Putin, elected president in March, has decided to put economic growth ahead of looming environmental problems.
"This decree is a call to action for all who want to exploit nature," the committee's former head Viktor Danilov-Danilyan said at a news conference Tuesday, according to RTR television.
Vast and unique nature areas across Russia are threatened, ecologists say.
Feeble oversight has allowed a company to start mining gold in a national park in Russia's Arctic, Russian NTV television reported Tuesday. A dam is planned in a nature reserve in the Ural Mountains, the report said.
Environmental problems in Russia include oil spills, contaminated drinking water, over-logging and huge, poorly stashed repositories of nuclear and chemical waste, much left over from the Cold War military buildup.
It is not the first time Putin has angered environmentalists. As head of the country's FSB security service, he accused ecological groups of providing cover for foreign spies.
A sister agency in charge of nuclear oversight, The State Atomic Supervisory committee, was stripped of much of its power last summer while the Atomic Energy Ministry took over some of its functions.