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Death and Life in a Company Town : As the deadly legacy of Russia's polluting factories has become clear, a handful of activists wages the lonely battle to reclaim their poisoned communities.

July 11, 1993|KATHLEEN HUNT | Kathleen Hunt reports for National Public Radio from Moscow; she last contributed "Mothers and Sons," about Soviet Army hazing, to this magazine.

IT IS EARLY MARCH ON THE SNOW-BOUND PLAINS OF RUSSIA'S BASHKORTOSTAN REPUBLIC, AND THE winter winds are still. A tall, bulky figure stands on the frozen riverbank of his native town, Sterlitamak, staring toward the dense gray smog gushing down from the sprawling industrial complex on the north side of town. The snow around his feet has turned gray under the mantle of noxious gases; the air is so strafed with chlorine and amorphous petrochemicals that it stings the nostrils.

For Albert Tukhvatullin, 39, an artist turned environmental activist, this week's smog is only the latest in the litany of spills, explosions and daily emissions that have befouled this Soviet industrial outpost for more than a quarter century. And it emboldens his lonely crusade to cut the tons of pollutants, ranging from mercury to dioxins, that he blames for the cancer that is slowly claiming the life of his teen-age son Marat.

We drive northward, past apartment buildings erected like a row of dominoes during the industrial boom of the 1960s. Ahead looms the center of Sterlitamak's economic power and pollution: the five chemical plants, which rise huge and soot-encrusted, belching dense powdery plumes and hurling orange flames from their smokestacks. It is as dark as dusk on this side of town, and some pedestrians cover their mouths as they pass the factory gates. Albert sardonically calls the stench a "socialist bouquet."

During the zealous industrialization campaign that reached its zenith in the 1960s, Sterlitamak and other cities across the former Soviet Union were selected for their natural resources--Sterlitamak for its salt deposits and broad Belaya River. From far and wide, workers were exhorted to come and march down the "Wide Road for Great Chemistry."

In Sterlitamak's chemical complex, which employs about a tenth of the city's 250,000 people, the campaign left a nightmarish maze of corroding rails and vast crumbling ducts patched with strips of paper and fraying cloth rags. Discarded hardware litters the factory lots, and huge frozen pools of toxic wastes lie waiting for the spring thaw. The flagship factory, Kaustik, was built in 1964 to produce chlorine and caustic soda. Kaustik's officials say they annually ship 40,000 tons of dichloritane to Western Europe, bringing in much-needed foreign currency. The cost is high: In the factory's most recent accident, in December, an explosion killed two people.

Grave as it is, Sterlitamak's environmental destruction is not the worst in the former Soviet Union, where hundreds of cities and towns in areas as far apart as Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Siberia have endured decades of devastation from nuclear radiation, DDT and petrochemical wastes. According to government surveys, 50 million residents of 103 cities breathe pollutants 15 times worse than maximum allowable levels. No place in the former Soviet Union is really safe, since most plants built along its majestic rivers and lakes were never equipped with pollution controls.

"When I was a child, I took a washbasin and used to ride the current of the river toward that bridge," says Albert, pointing to a horizontal form barely visible through the smog. "There were woodpeckers in these trees. Under Khrushchev, they tore down all the small houses and built these things," he says with disgust, tipping his head toward the concrete nine-story building behind us.

When I first visited Kaustik at the close of 1991, I was taken on a tour by the factory's gaunt deputy chief of technology, Yuri Dimitriev, and the local chairman of the official trade union, Anatoly Stariov. Workers dressed in baggy pants and jackets toiled in dim, filthy work sections, with sacks of powdered polyvinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, flopped in a corner. Overhead pipes burst with clots of thick white insulation fibers. As we passed through another room where men were rolling huge plastic sheets, the ill-designed ventilation fan blew hot, gagging vinyl fumes that sent me hurrying to the door for air.

In the years he spent at Kaustik, Albert says, wincing and shaking his head, "There was always dust in the air, spilled liquids and vapors. Thoe place was such a mess. Sometimes sacks would burst open, and all six workers in the area would be forced to swallow this dust."

These are only minor insults compared to the massive, enduring environmental destruction left by factories such as Kaustik. Sitting in his imposing wood-paneled office, Dimitriev admitted that over the years, "We consumed about 40 tons of mercury a year for this process, and those 40 tons escaped with the final product."

One of the largest concentrations of mercury ended up on the land next door, where the "May 1st" township was built for thousands of chemical workers and their families. Thanks to Sterlitamak's chronic housing shortage, the companies have postponed a plan to evacuate their workers from those squalid dormitories.

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