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Russia, August 4, 1999

Serious Soviet Pollution

Polution Central

August 4, 1999, AFP via Johnson's Russia List

Russia's Karabash: A town with the air of death about it

KARABASH, Russia, - The town of Karabash in the Russian Urals has the unpleasant distinction, according to the United Nations, of being one of the most polluted places on the face of the planet.

This town of 17,000 inhabitants, is slowly dying, choking on the fumes from the copper foundry around which it was built. The birth-rate is low and death at 45 is the norm, thanks to the all-pervasive toxic fumes which have also taken their toll on the local flora and fauna. "Here death at the age of 45 is normal, with all that we are breathing in," local doctor Vladimir Makarevitch explained. Last year, Krabash's mortality rate stood at 17.9 per 1,000 people, against 14 per 1,000 for Russia as a whole. Its birthrate was 6.9 per 1,000 against the national average of nine per 1,000. The figures are even more stark when compared to a Western country like France where the figures are nine deaths per 1,000 residents and 13 births.

The soil here has been poisoned for decades by high concentrations of lead, arsenic, nickel, cobalt, cadmium, copper and zinc, up to 150 times permitted levels. "Hundreds of tonnes of sulphur are belched into the air each day by the fumes from the foundry's chimneys," foundry director Oleg Ranski told AFP. "We don't have the money to build air purification units," explained the town's deputy mayor Viacheslav Yagodinets.

The nearby black mountains which form part of the local countryside are actually made up of some 18 million tonnes of copper slag, built up since 1914 when the foundry, and its little village, were first built. The wind carries the copper dust onto the nearby fields. "Nobody knows what the consequences are," bemoans Yevgeny Shram, head of the town's ecology committee.

The real mountains near Karabash are called "bald" by the locals. The foundry's sulphurous emanations have denuded them of all plants and grass. At the other end of town it looks like a lunar landscape; nothing but dust for hundreds of metres (yards).

In 1992 the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) designated Karabash as one of the world's most polluted towns. The same year the foundry was closed for "ecological reasons" according to the town authorities, only to be reopened in February 1998. That was after it had been taken over by an industrialist from the nearby town of Kyshtym, a man well-enough connected to get the foundry running again.

"Since the plant was reopened, our hospital has seen a sharp rise in pneumonia and bronchitis cases," said head nurse Natalia Charando. The number of blood illnesses have doubled and skin complaints are also up, she added. The death rate from cancer was 25.8 out of 1,000 in 1997 and 39.1 in 1998. "I'm only 25 and I've already lost all my teeth," said local resident Alexei Petrovitch.

A government commission which came here three years ago merely verified the parlous state of affairs. Karabash is the only Russian town officially recognised by the government as an "ecological disaster zone". That doesn't help the people living here: "The government promised financial aid, but we haven't seen a single ruble," complains deputy mayor Yagodinets.

The foundry's directors have promised to build air purification units by January 1, 2000. "We strongly doubt that will happen. For the time being there isn't even a concrete proposal," said a foundry employee under cover of anonymity. "We hope to have the problem solved in two-and-a-half years," said an optimistic Ranski. "We are in the process of getting rid of 10-15 percent of the copper slag" produced by the factory as waste," he added.

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