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.