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Environment : Ill Wind Blows Over City, but Russians Stay : The people say they can't afford to quit working at a nickel plant that pollutes their land and bodies.

March 24, 1992|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NIKEL, Russia — The skyline of this remote settlement in Russia's far north consists of three large smokestacks that pump sulfur dioxide into the air at a rate of more than 280,000 tons per year.

Depending on the direction of the wind, the noxious gas hovers over Nikel or blows across the border to Norway, just three miles away.

Bare, deformed tree trunks jut out of the snow on the once picturesque rolling hills that surround this town of 20,000, and in summer, acid rain falls over the region killing more vegetation.

Local doctors say the pollution pumped into Nikel's air is so harmful that only one-third of babies are born healthy. Most children suffer from central nervous system disorders and allergies, and are generally weak and sickly. Adults complain of headaches, tooth decay and bronchial problems.

But inside the grimy, 1940 vintage metal works, Dmitri A. Babin's face lit up when he was asked about life in Nikel.

"It's better here than any place else," Babin, 29, said with a grin. "I earn 20,000 rubles a month," he added proudly, citing a salary more than 30 times the national average. "I have a Japanese television, two video recorders, a video camera, a car, a summer home in the south and everything else I could possibly want. Of course there are ecological problems; we used to have green forests here and now they're all dead. But we go out of the area to relax."

Welcome to a Soviet-style company town.

Dozens of similar settlements, once the mainstays of the country's centrally orchestrated industrialization, dot the map of the former Soviet Union. Several of them were built on the foundations of Stalinist labor camps.

With populations ranging from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand, these towns are run much like the company towns that thrived in America around the turn of the century. The enterprise director wields extraordinary power over almost all aspects of economic and political life in these towns.

As Russia tries to enter the world economy, these company towns face a host of new problems. The outrage of local citizens and sometimes foreign governments is forcing them to seek ways to control pollution. They must try to hold on to work forces that enjoy new mobility. They also must either make their enterprises profitable or face extinction because the government plans to end subsidies.

Economically, Nikel has a better chance than most to make the adjustment. As part of a billion-dollar-a-year conglomerate, the local mining and refinery enterprise, Pechenganikel, has been able to do a lot to keep its employees satisfied.

It has raised salaries to 22 times what they were a year ago, kept the local grocery stores stocked with all the foods that people in other cities only dream of, brought in foreign-made clothes and other consumer goods and sold them to its workers for low prices.

"If we were not a profitable firm, we couldn't do this," said Igor A. Blatov, the director of Pechenganikel, which has facilities both here and in neighboring Zapolyarny.

The enterprise takes a decidedly casual attitude toward the pollution it spews into the atmosphere and spreads over nearby hills. In addition to all that sulfur dioxide, it discards about eight million of the nine million tons of ore it receives each year.

"Our wastes cover 500 hectares (1,235 acres) around Nikel," Fyodor F. Volkov, the deputy director in charge of the environment, said. "Today we don't know what to do with it. I hope in the future our descendants will learn how to recycle it."

Local environmentalists say that given Pechenganikel's dominance of the economy, theirs can be a lonely battle.

Pechenganikel directly employs 15,000 of the 50,000 people who live in the area, which includes Nikel, Zapolyarny and small nearby settlements. Including those who owe their livelihood indirectly to the enterprise, virtually everybody depends on it.

"The factory's directors just laugh at us," commented Sergei P. Gerchancy, a lawyer and local environmentalist. "They come right out and say that the enterprise will do whatever it wants."

Because of the director's influence, Gerchancy said, the effects of sulfur dioxide emissions on the local population and environment have never been thoroughly studied.

"If everything nearby dies--all plant and animal life--can you tell me that this does not affect the people here?" Gerchancy asked rhetorically. "But the company feeds, clothes, entertains and gives a lot of money to its workers, so no one will protest against it. So we don't get anywhere."

The environmentalists' goal is not to close the combine but to force it to launch a capital reconstruction project that could cut emissions of sulfur dioxide to negligible levels. Blatov says the cleanup effort may cost as much as $1 billion, and although a Finnish company has submitted plans and estimates, no decision has been made.

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