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MEI Online: Environmental Issues: Latest News: May 9th 2003

:: The Appalling Pollution of Karabash  

In the Russian Urals, the town of Karabash is one of the most polluted places in the world. Emissions from the five stacks of the century-old Karabash copper smelter are notoriously bad. The soil in and around the town is full of toxic metals including lead, mercury, and arsenic. According to Reuters, Karabash, a town of apocalyptic bleakness, is a painful reminder of an environmental policy that has balked at the huge cost of cleaning up many of the ailing behemoths left behind by the Soviet Union, including its metals sector.

Authorities closed the plant in 1987 because of ecological concerns, the town was declared an "environmental disaster zone" and plans were made to resettle some families. However, this put 3,500 people out of work, plunged the town into poverty, and badly affected the vast company-funded social infrastructure. The plant was reopened in 1998 to satisfy a town desperate for jobs. "There were no legal documents. There should have been an ecological assessment, but there was nothing," Maxim Shingarkin, an environmental campaigner and aide at the Russian parliament, told Reuters. "They just came and switched on the machines."

Mikhail Gorbachev pledged to begin cleaning up the Soviet Union's gravest ecological mistakes. But circumstances mitigated against that and the huge expense of cleaning up the old Soviet-era heavy has seen such ideas largely pushed to the back of any queues. The Urals industrial belt, including Karabash, some 1,300 km southeast of Moscow, has seen few of the benefits of the foreign investment coming into European Russia.

Yevgeny Shram, a local deputy and activist, told Reuters that the city was so starved of jobs it was obliged to agree to the plant's proposal to reopen without a major overhaul. He noted the difficulties of 24% unemployment. "The plant was allowed to work for two years without an environmental inspection. That was five years ago. We are still waiting."

According to Russian law, homes should long ago have been moved further away from the smelter, beyond a sanitary radius of about 1 km. But 1,000 people still live within metres of the facility; only 50 have been moved since it began work in 1998.

Yevgeny Orlov, responsible for environmental management at the Karabash plant, dismisses accusations that it is working illegally. He cites a resettlement plan valued at over $8 million) still to be approved by the Moscow authorities and efforts to reduce toxic emissions. He has little sympathy for residents complaints about air quality. "I have worked in factories across Russia, and I know that ours is not the worst." However, all agree that they cannot afford to close the smelter altogether. "This is not about closing the plant. This is about getting the plant to fulfill its legal duties," said Mr Shram. "We let them begin work, and they polluted our town for two years, then another two years, then another two years and so on. They paint a picture according to which we helped each other. Now, it is not clear if anyone is helping anyone," he said. "They are a private company. If it is good for them to work on our territory, it should be good for us too."



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Mining Environmental Management, May 8, 2003

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