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Environment : Tiny Russian Town Drowning in Sludge : Krasnyy Bor is called a 'time bomb' after 25 years of storing St. Petersburg's toxic waste.

October 11, 1994|MATT BIVENS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

KRASNYY BOR, Russia — Some evenings at this village are shattered by the terrified screams of pigs and foxes drowning in toxic sludge.

Others are quieter, and one can breathe in the sweet, chocolaty smell and contemplate the coming disaster.

Krasnyy Bor is conducive to such gloomy thoughts. Every evening its reservoir comes a little closer to overflowing. If that happens, the muck will poison the cabbage farms that surround the reservoir as well as streams that flow into the Neva River near St. Petersburg.

"Krasnyy Bor is a time bomb," said the reservoir's chief caretaker, Vladimir Vovchanov. "It's set to go off in six months, or at the very latest within a year."

The reservoir was dug in 1969 as a temporary storage site for thousands of tons of hazardous waste--battery acids, oil and gasoline, industrial cleaners and solvents, glues and paints produced by factories in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, half an hour's drive away.

Experts chose the outskirts of this sleepy village for their dumping ground because they encompass a geologically rare vein of pale green Cambrian clay. It's like a dense mud, and it holds water six times more effectively than concrete.

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So a reservoir was scooped out of the clay around Krasnyy Bor, and the sludge of St. Petersburg was poured in. The experts warned that the site could be used for no more than five years.

Today, 25 years later, the reservoir is still receiving hundreds of tons of dangerous substances. Room is made for the new waste by pumping old sludge into seven giant ovens, where it burns away at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

But the oven chimney filters are primitive. Chemicals and poisons that survive the heat--dioxin, for example--roar up to mix with the clouds above. From the reservoir, whose scummy depths hide an array of chemicals, an even thicker brew evaporates into the air.

"All that slop comes back down onto our farms and into our hair in the form of acid rain," Vovchanov said. "It's wild, unpardonably stupid, that this is still going on.

"It's amazing that they built this reservoir without a cover of some sort. We have a fence around the grounds, and that keeps out people and children. No person has ever fallen in, but we have animals falling in all the time."

Yet in a country famous for raping its environment, Krasnyy Bor is, for the moment, a relatively model community. According to LenKomEkologia, the regional environmental agency, Krasnyy Bor's ovens throw up 387 tons of harmful gases and steams a year. But the neighboring Izhorsky Works, which turned out tanks that helped win World War II and now builds construction equipment, coughs out 46,000 tons.

"We're actually quite good for the environment, for now," Vovchanov said. "But when we start to overflow, I will have to shut us down, and that will be a catastrophe."

With Krasnyy Bor shut down, St. Petersburg's industries would be forced to store their dangerous poisons and wastes in city warehouses, or dump them into neighboring forests or into the Neva River. This happened once, in 1989, when Krasnyy Bor was closed for a one-week protest. By the week's end, the St. Petersburg Sanitary-Epidemic Station was recording levels of heavy metals and salts in the Neva and the downtown Fontana Canal 400 times higher than the previous week's.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, cornered in August by ecologists and Krasnyy Bor workers during the Goodwill Games at St. Petersburg, has promised to include funds for building a new incinerator at Krasnyy Bor in the 1995 budget.

"But that's so far off," complained Vovchanov. "That means that until as late as September next year, we won't know whether the government intends to do anything. Besides, we had the same promise from (Soviet President Mikhail S.) Gorbachev."

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Meanwhile, the ovens roar 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to hold the toxic sludge back from the rim of the reservoir. But the level continues to climb.

With a modern incinerator, Vovchanov believes, he could quickly burn away the entire reservoir, and then--over seven years, at a cost of about $5 million--clean up and restore the area. But that's money he doesn't expect to see.

"We're waiting for either a pragmatic leader to take power or a catastrophe," he said. "There's a Russian saying: 'The muzhik (peasant) doesn't cross himself until he hears the thunder.' We're waiting for the thunder."

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