Russia's Legacy of Death

Before the U.S. Congress cuts environemntal protections, legislators might want to examine the fate of a country that pursued growth at all costs.

  • Glenn Garelik
  • Jun 01, 1996
The Soviet slogan was stern, and everyone knew it: "We cannot expect charity from nature. We must tear it from her." I had only to recall what I had seen in Russia to know what happens when environmental protection takes a backseat to industry.

A Reporter's View: 
DURING NEARLY TWO YEARS as a journalist in Russia, I craved, more than anything, fresh, clean air--that and water that I could drink straight from the tap. And more than anything among the manifold blessings of life in America, it is these that I savor now that I am home. Certainly I had had other complaints in Moscow. A little sunlight in that perpetually bleak and cloud-covered city would have been nice. And I missed good vegetables, such as tomatoes that I didn't suspect could power a small nuclear reactor. But most of all,I longed for clean air and water. In the former Soviet Union, where for decades the government promoted production at all costs, one of the costs the nation paid was in the purity and integrity of the environment. After living without them, I still can't get enough of such seemingly simple things as safe water.

Ironically, while I was away and looking forward to coming home to a healthier environment, Americans elected a Congress that seems bent on overturning the environmental laws and regulations that, I believe, underlie the difference between America, the Still Beautiful, and the former Soviet Union, with its harrowing environmental dangers. In the estimation of the League of Conservation Voters, the Congress that came into office in 1994 is the worst in the 25 years that the League has been keeping score. For instance, last year the House sought to shut down key programs under the Clean Air Act and to gut support for endangered-species listings and for international wildlife-protection programs. The House Appropriations Committee approved halving the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement budget--a move that could hobble the agency's ability to uphold dozens of environmental programs, including requirements that industries monitor and report the pollutants they emit.

The Senate was less ardent in seeking to revamp U.S. environmental protections, but moved in much the same direction. I had only to recall what I had seen in Russia to know what happens when environmental protection takes a backseat to industry. In the Soviet Union, environmental officials were always kept subservient to the agencies that ran the military, utilities, mines, chemical industries and metalworks. As a result, pollution in Russia now threatens the health of millions of citizens and the safety of crops, water and air. Nowhere in my travels were the weaknesses of Soviet environmental protection more apparent than in the Kuznetsk coal-mining basin, or Kuzbass, a 96,000-square-kilometer (37,000-sq.mi.) swath of southwest Siberia that for most of this century has been pillaged in the name of progress for its unparalleled mineral riches. The area holds effectively bottomless stores of coal, iron, manganese and gold. For example, under Kuzbass soil lie an estimated 725 billion tons of bituminous coal--145 times the total amount of coal ever mined in the entire world.

Though coal and iron ore were discovered in the region in the 1700s, for most of its history the Kuzbass, 2,000 miles east of Moscow, has harbored only the harsh penal colonies of successive despotic regimes. Rapid development came to the area in the late 1920s, when Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered a nationwide expansion of the industrial base. In southern Russia, in the basin of the Don River; in the Far North, Karelia and the Kola Peninsula; and most of all, through the Ural Mountains to Magnitogorsk and east to the Kuzbass, the state built a vast zone of mines and metallurgical combines. The only limits were time and manpower. After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet leaders expanded the Kuzbass' growth, then went after the immense reserves of oil, gas and timber in the rest of Siberia.

The Soviet slogan was stern, and everyone knew it: "We cannot expect charity from nature. We must tear it from her." Says Valentin Naidanov, vice governor of the Kuzbass, "Like a colonial power, Moscow paid little attention to what life was like here. It just wanted coal, coal, more coal."Today, both local people and the powers in Moscow must bear the results. In the Kuzbass, as in the rest of the country, life was organized aroundwork. In Novokuznetsk, Russia's biggest metallurgical center after Magnitogorsk (just two of Novokuznetsk's hundreds of metalworks employ more than 70,000 of the city's 620,000 residents), the football stadium is called the Metal Worker.

In Kemerovo, the regional capital and the center for coking, chemicals, dyes and fertilizers, the stadium is called the Chemist. In a bitter irony from the Soviet era, billboards standing in soot-blackened snow along Kemerovo's main thoroughfare, still called Soviet Street, commemorate the victory over Germany in 1945 and proclaim "Glory to Labor!" In the 50 years since, the industrial hands of the victors have wrought devastation of their own. Nothing better illustrates the extent of that devastation than the River Tom, which rises in the snowy peaks that separate Russia from Mongolia and runs for 827 kilometers (500 miles) through the Kuzbass before flowing into the Ob, one of Siberia's trio of great rivers. The Kuzbass covers just four percent of Siberia's territory but is home to 22 percent of Siberia's people, drawn there by industrial work. Nine out of ten of them live in a narrow north-south strip along the Tom, which is lined with some of Russia's grimiest factories. As it flows through Kemerovo, the river serves both as the city's only source of drinking water and as its sole sewer.

The Tom collects sewage and industrial waste for most of its length. In winter, hot clouds billow above the edges of the icy river--hints of the 4.8 million tons of poisons that industry dumps into the Tom each year. Carcinogenic benzene and petroleum products in the Tom average two to three times the government's legal level, according to a recent study, and during the spring thaw exceed it 15-fold. Formaldehyde measures 34 times the permissible load. According to Yuri Kaznin, who heads the Department of Public Health of the Kemerovo Medical Institute, the river contains as much as 48 times the legal level of bacteria, 40 times the arsenic and as much as 8.5 times the phenol, a poison derived from coal tar. Groundwater is even worse, he says. It contains 150 times the acceptable level of these toxic contaminants. A journey up a tributary of the Tom leads to Leninsk-Kuznetski, home to 160,000 people. From the center of town, an hour and a half to the south of Kemerovo, smokestacks tower in every direction, and the streets are covered with coal dust and ash. Like most of the factories here, the largest of the city's nine mines are downtown. Residents take their drinking water in pails from the Inya, the local river. Because it contains more chemical waste than water, it flows even when winter temperatures drop far below freezing. A few hours further up the Tom, in Novokuznetsk, the air grows even worse.

During the spring thaw, the city's mammoth metalworks mock environmental laws, releasing into the sky three or four times the maximum legal level of heavy metals. In winter and summer, the climate conspires to trap poisonous air above the city for weeks at a time. A report by the regional Health and Epidemiology Survey indicates that sulfur levels near an agglomeration plant run as high as 312 times the acceptable level. Near a 5.4 million-square-foot pharmaceutical plant, fluoride is 300 times the norm.

Two-thirds of the city's air pollution comes not from its monster factories but from the low stacks of its centralized, and massively inefficient, coal-burning utility plants. According to municipal authorities in Novokuznetsk, the city's air averages 10 times the legal level of benzopyrene, a carcinogen found in coal. One industrial district is burdened with 48 times the legal level. On bad days, the authorities say, nitrous oxide runs 15 times the norm, ammonium 10 times and soot 7 times. Studies around the world have implicated these pollutants in a variety of human ailments, some fatal, ranging from asthma and sore throats to cancer. By winter's end, according to a local chemist, snow on the city's streets contains 200 times the level of pollutants that the law allows. Residents add more than 800,000 tons of solid trash and waste yearly to a dump at the center of town, near the river bank, polluting the groundwater and carrying 1 million cubic meters (225 million gallons) of contaminated runoff into the Tom daily--more, authorities admit, than the purification system can handle. Industries illegally dump thousands of tons of toxic waste throughout the city each year.

According to Nikolai Korolyov, executive director of the Novokuznetsk Development Fund, a group that with foreign help is trying to address the pollution problem, even the treated water has dangerously high numbers of parasites and the organisms that cause dysentery, typhoid and paratyphoid. Partly because of air pollution and partly because of mining, says Anatoli Shmonov, head of the regional Land Reclamation Laboratory, the soil throughout the Kuzbass is ruined. In Kemerovo, for instance, it contains 22 times the permissible levels of zinc, 31 times the lead and 35 times the arsenic, a deadly byproduct of smelting. On a paltry budget, Shmonov's laboratory is seeking ways of living with the damage--finding which vegetables, for instance, can be raised safely in which areas. The nature of the Russian diet, which consists largely of root vegetables, compounds the problem because many of these are the plants most likely to absorb poisons from the soil. North of Kemerovo, around the city of Anzhero-Sudzhensk, beets contain five times the maximum allowable lead, zinc and cadmium.

The fact that most Kuzbass coal lies at shallow depths has invited industry to turn 3,900 square miles of what was once some of Russia's most fertile topsoil into open pits and piles of coal refuse, Shmonov says. Though heavy in radon, the mining waste also is used for railroad embankments and construction. When the coal from these pits has been exhausted, the earth is left so badly scarred that, during rains and the spring thaw, a sulfurous runoff acidifies the groundwater and rivers. "What we have to work with here isn't soil," says Shmonov matter-of-factly. "It is a soil-like substance, and we have to learn how to live with it." Though its extremes may stand out, the Kuzbass is not unique among the many tragedies that choke the 21 million square kilometers (8 million sq.mi.) of the former Soviet Union. For example, scientists who helped develop nuclear power plants and atomic test sites acknowledge that the nuclear industry pumped billions of gallons of deadly waste into the earth--including, near three of Russia's most important rivers, an amount equal to 60 times the radiation released during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant accident. According to a 1994 World Bank report "virtually all" of the country's radioactive-waste storage sites fail to meet modern standards.

Due north of the Kuzbass, near the Arctic Circle, acid rain from the smelting of nickel, copper and platinum has deforested 880,000 acres, according to Russian newspaper Izvestiya. Solid-waste processing facilities can handle barely more than a quarter of the 7 billion tons produced annually. According to a 1994 report by the Security Council of President Boris Yeltsin, three-quarters of Russia's water is unpotable. Other studies place the figure still higher. According to Russia's Environment and Natural Resources Ministry, the country's 1.2 million miles of oil and gas pipelines experience about 1,000 spills yearly. As much as 1.5 trillion cubic feet of the gas that rises with extracted petroleum is simply burned up. ITAR-TASS, the official news agency, reported recently that in the Komi Republic alone, where a horrific 1994 oil spill dumped as much as 300 million gallons onto the tundra and into rivers, about 40 more leaks have occurred. In the Far East, clear-cutting is out of control. More than 1,000 plant and animal species are endangered in Russia, according to the World Bank. All of these tragedies are the result, in the words of the Security Council report, of "economics without limits"--a "perversion of the system of values."

The human health consequences of this inattention to the environment have been catastrophic. For reasons that Aleksei Yablokov, the head of the Security Council's environmental commission, attributes to the degraded environment, the life expectancy of men in Russia has dropped to 57.3 years, compared to 72 in the United States. In the Kuzbass, it is only 51. According to Andrei Luzhkov, director of immunology at the Kemerovo Medical Institute, 80 percent of workers in the Kuzbass have impaired immune systems.

Other studies indicate that adults in Kemerovo are more than three times as likely as people elsewhere in the country to suffer endocrine ailments and 2.7 times as likely to have chronic bronchitis. Kemerovo's children have three times the kidney and urinary-tract infections and, according to the Medical Institute's Kaznin, 2.6 times the fatal nervous-system disorders. In one of the city's particularly polluted neighborhoods, the number of retarded children is triple the national average. Russia's health problems, like its polluted environment, are hardly confined to the Kuzbass. In Novosibirsk, to the northeast of Kemerovo, several schools have reported cardiovascular problems in all of their students. In the Kola Peninsula, near Scandinavia, fully one-fourth of the babies have heart defects or bone-marrow disorders.

Not far to the south, in the town of Nadvoitsy, decades of dumping by an aluminum plant has contaminated drinking-water sources, turning the teeth of the town's children black and rotten. In Kazakhstan, where before the Soviet empire's breakup in 1991 half the country's zinc and lead were smelted, immune system abnormalities reportedly afflict 58 percent of the children. In Uzbekistan, where the once enormous Aral Sea was deprived of water for the sake of irrigating ever larger cotton crops, winds rushing across the dried sea bed whip up dust laden with salts, pesticides and fertilizers. In Ukraine, virtually all commerce last summer was halted in the Kharkov region when a sewage-treatment system began spilling 200,000 cubic meters (45 million gal.) of raw sewage daily into the local river.

The environmental scourge at the root of such problems shows no signs of abating. On the contrary, according to a report released by the Environment Ministry in June, air pollution in the 60 to 70 largest Russian cities, where between 40 million and 50 million people live, rises several times a year to at least 10 times higher than the legal limit. As many as 60 million other people live in places where pollution yearly exceeds health standards by at least five times. Olga Andrakhanova, who has headed the regional Environmental Protection Committee since Soviet days, laments the lack of priority that government accords the environment--although recently, she says in a great bureaucratic flourish, the committee authorized 19 new programs and 200 inspectors to make sure that industry complies with what law there is. Ironically, in 1949 the Soviet Union passed the world's first resolution defining maximum permissible levels of toxic substances. But like the progressive Soviet Constitution, this resolution and the nation's other environmental laws were worth less than the paper on which they were written.

Regulation and enforcement, write Georgetown University demographer Murray Feshbach and journalist Alfred Friendly, Jr., "amounted to another form of the old Russian practice of pokazukha, putting a false front over grubby reality. At most they constituted a minor nuisance for factory managers under pressure to fulfill their plans at all costs." Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia has added still more laws to the books. But today's reality--even where the high-minded plans are not sabotaged by corruption--is that no one can afford to follow through. For instance, Andrakhanova admits that her 19 new programs and 200 inspectors have no local budget and that only half the federal money promised them actually comes through. Laboring for decades under industrial plans that proved short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating, the Soviet behemoth fouled its own nest. The cost of recovery is incalculable, and the coffers are bare. The Russian example stands as a reminder to Americans that, over the long haul, a people who practice production without prudence may destroy or damage all that sustains them.

Glenn Garelik, who writes frequently about the environment, was a reporter and journalism instructor in Russia from 1993 to 1995.

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