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Moscow Still Fights Cold War -- Against Snow

Russia enlists equipment and melting facilities in its battle to clear streets before the next storm.

March 07, 2004|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — They emerge onto major thoroughfares a bit before midnight, their crab claws gobbling up snow piles in huge pincer movements as attendant dump trucks trail obediently behind.

These humble but hefty snow loaders, virtually unchanged from models used four decades ago, play a key role in an ongoing cold war: the Russian capital's annual industrial-scale battle to remove snow from the streets before the next storm sets in.

That fight has been particularly intense this season, with snowfall 30% above the norm.

Power shovels, snowplows and old-fashioned shoveling are all used in the struggle, but the snow loaders -- sometimes called "golden hands" -- are the stars of the effort.

The contraption has a personality of its own, one that has changed over the years more than the device itself.

In Soviet times, to call someone a snow loader meant that the person was like a greedy capitalist, said Yevgenia Bogomolova, spokeswoman for the Moscow water and wastewater agency, which runs facilities that melt the snow after it's removed from the streets. "It scoops stuff not outward, but inward, toward itself," she said, "making itself richer and richer."

The point of the insult was that "you should work for society but not for yourself," she said. "You should not be like a snow loader."

Now that getting rich is seen as a worthy goal, the snow loader has a new nickname that stems from the same self-enrichment symbolism but carries a very different nuance, she added.

" 'Golden hand' is a new term which kind of has a positive connotation to it."

The city employs 20,000 people and 6,000 vehicles for snow-removal work, Bogomolova said.

Much effort is also put into clearing roofs of snow and icicles so that they don't pose a threat to pedestrians typically six to eight floors below. But this is an inexact science, and people are injured by falling daggers of ice every winter. Many pedestrians cast a watchful eye toward rooftops or give buildings an unusually wide berth whenever a thaw sets in.

"This problem is characteristic for Moscow, especially its old part, where roofs have a shape that causes icicles to form," said Mikhail Bogomolov, head of the water agency's snow-melting facilities. "This winter, a young man was injured by a falling icicle. But this year, thank God, we haven't had a fatality."

The "golden hands" and other equipment handle plenty of snow. The water agency's 27 melting stations have processed 450 million cubic feet of snow this winter, compared with 280 million cubic feet for all of the winter before.

With that much white stuff, this is no city for simple snowplowing. If the snowplow drifts seen across the United States were allowed to stand here, they would get in the way of traffic and pedestrians all winter. They would also create vast quantities of slush when the long-awaited spring finally arrived.

Melting facilities -- capable of handling more than 12,000 truckloads of snow a day and extracting sand and litter from the grimy white stuff -- are also vital to Moscow's effort to reduce river pollution.

Until three years ago, truckloads of dirty snow and ice were dumped unceremoniously into Moscow's rivers. Then a pollution study found that snow from city streets was among the worst offenders.

The snow has been processed at melting facilities since the 2001-02 season. The stations mix the snow into sewage -- still relatively warm from the heat of buildings -- before treatment. Seven additional facilities under another agency's management mix the snow with hot water from power plants.

Pollutants are removed from the melted snow at sewage-treatment plants. "The snow contains a lot of petroleum products, and now a lot of chemicals are used to make the snow melt faster in the streets," Bogomolov said. "After being treated, it's put into the Moscow River."

Truck driver Fyodor Gogin, 43, interviewed late one night as a power shovel loaded his vehicle, said he preferred the old ways. "It was much simpler in the past," he said. "You just go to the embankment and dump the stuff and that's it, without any problems."

But Gogin said he understood why the change was implemented. To make his point, albeit with a touch of hyperbole, he referred to great Russian scientist Dmitri I. Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table that arranges elements according to their atomic structure. "You can find the entire Mendeleev table in this snow pile," he said.

In the old days, many vacant lots in industrial areas also were set aside for snow-dumping. There, huge mounds of snow would last into midsummer, Bogomolov said. "Even that didn't help to avoid pollution," he said, "because the melted snow got into the earth and streams and flowed back into the river in an untreated way."

Some such sites still exist, but they are being rapidly phased out, not only for ecological reasons but also because the city's development has caused land to become too expensive. "We can't afford anymore to stockpile snow," he said.

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