MOSCOW — "A cap of smog hung over the city. Each hour it grew thicker. By lunchtime, the cars were passing the Nizhni Tagil Metallurgical Plant with their lights on. By evening, the city was covered with a heavy, suffocating blanket."
Thus began the dramatic account of a recent air pollution crisis in the Ural Mountains city of Nizhni Tagil that appeared April 6 in the Communist youth newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The article noted that the air was so foul that children broke out in rashes on the way to school. It noted that 54 unexplained stillbirths had been reported in the town last year and suggested strongly that bad air was to blame.
The air pollution became so bad that the residents of Nizni Tagil finally rebelled, staging a demonstration involving 10,000 people. In response, one of the coke furnaces at the metallurgical plant was shut down.
The story of this year's Nizhni Tagil crisis, exposed and debated in painful detail in the national press, reflects a sea change in official Soviet thinking toward the environment. The Kremlin is suddenly environment-conscious.
Only a decade ago, the Soviet Union flatly denied that it had pollution of any sort. Indeed, the belching chimneys and crisscrossed power lines that appeared in photographs were emblems of Soviet achievements.
The country was slanted so far in the direction of big industry that the national motto was "Communism is Soviet power and the electrification of the entire state."
In recent weeks, the Communist Party Central Committee has responded to this period of long neglect by establishing a National Environmental Protection agency to oversee all aspects of pollution control in the country. The new agency was given broad powers to set standards and authority to close industrial violators.
Pollution control has long been regarded with horror by Communist Party officials. Whereas in the West the costs can be passed along to the consumer, here they must be borne by the state. In addition, controls frequently result in less output--anathema in a country driven by long-range economic plans.
Press Exposes Problems
In addition to establishing the new agency, the government has allowed the official press new freedom in exposing and reporting on a plethora of environmental disasters.
A huge sewage basin near Alma Ata in Kazahkstan ruptured in February, sending a tidal wave of industrial waste through a populated area, killing 10 people and poisoning the local reservoir. Three similar sewage basins are in the same condition in the area, according to a report in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda.
Last month, Komsomolskaya Pravda said that the town of Kirishi, southeast of Leningrad, was about to "explode" with popular protests because of the harmful effects of a chemical plant whose pollution has caused allergies, disease and uncounted deaths.
A river southeast of Moscow overflowed its banks in the city of Uvarovo in February, flooding basements and garages. The river was said to be so polluted that "mice hopped out of the basements and died instantly. . . ."
Yuri Izrael, the former head of environmental protection in the country, said in a newspaper interview last year that the Soviet Union now has 100 cities where air pollution was more than 10 times the acceptable level for several days.
He said that about 105 million tons of harmful substances--including 40 million tons from cars--are emitted into the atmosphere each year, a figure that he described as "enormous" but still less than the 150 million tons per year reported in the United States.
Severe Acid Rain
Izrael said sulfur dioxide emissions, primarily from power stations using coal, have risen to more than 20 million tons a year. He described acid rain as so severe that it is damaging forests, farms and even historical monuments and buildings.
He said that while the government ordered so-called scrubbers installed on power plant chimneys as far back as 1972, the devices have still not been installed.
Izrael was quoted as saying that over the last few years, "dramatic events have occurred--the taking of natural resources has grown at a headlong pace, chemistry has intruded into nature on a broad scale, ecological events approaching crises have occurred and their scale has grown sharply from a local to a global level. . . . "
In 1986, he said, inspectors issued 1,559 orders to various industries to suspend various production operations. Another 300 cases were turned over to the prosecutor's office.
Another aspect of environmental damage being aired in the Soviet press these days is the overuse of natural resources.
Irrigation Project Harms Sea
The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has become virtually lifeless because of an increase in salt and a decrease in water level connected with irrigation projects for nearby cotton farms.