At top of the world, the Soviet legacy is pollution

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ARCHANGEL, Russia -- Soviet power has disappeared here, but it has left a fatal legacy.

The march toward communism cost the people of Archangel their pure air, clean water and even the health of their children. This snowy expanse near the Arctic Circle seems fouled beyond all understanding.

The damage was thorough, unrelenting and so insidious that scientists have yet to determine its extent.

The latest victims are thousands of harp seals dying of cancer from the harm the former Soviet Union inflicted upon itself and its unsuspecting people as it moved to industrialization and superpower status.

Scientists suspect that these beautiful animals with the large imploring eyes are being killed by years of irresponsible Soviet nuclear testing and dumping.

Once the seals were threatened only by hunters who club the pups to death for their luxurious, snow-white pelts. Now those that survive migrate through water so contaminated that environmentalists imagine it fairly crackles with radioactivity.

Scientists began taking blood and tissue samples from the seals two years ago, after more than a million dead starfish washed up along the White Sea coast.

They are still unsure of what killed the starfish, but the study of the seals has revealed blood pathologies consistent with long-term toxic or radioactive exposure.

"This is a problem so big and serious it goes beyond us," says Yuri K. Timoshenko, director of the marine mammal laboratory at the Polar Scientific Research Institute here.

"It goes beyond our studies and finances."

Mr. Timoshenko says it is too soon to submit findings to scientific journals, for scientists have not yet established an absolute link to the nuclear waste here.

But the evidence is strong enough that when he began to suspect recently that the Russian government would resume nuclear testing on the island of Novaya Zemlya, Mr. Timoshenko and two colleagues alerted the people of Archangel.

They published an article in a local newspaper, Pravda of the North, earlier this month warning that thousands of seals were ill with blood cancers.

"In the last decades, monstrous experiments connected with numerous nuclear weapons tests were performed on Novaya Zemlya," the article said.

"The Barents Sea and the coast of Novaya Zemlya were turned into a dump for solid and liquid radioactive waste. A catastrophic situation has been created. A real threat has emerged, not only to sea mammals but everything in the ocean. The ecological and genetic consequences are unpredictable."

Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic island twice as big as Switzerland, was cleared of its inhabitants in the 1950s to make way for nuclear weapons testing.

The frigid waters of the White and Barents seas were used as a dump for spent reactors from nuclear submarines and icebreakers.

Environmentalists say that the Soviet government operated its nuclear program with reckless disregard not only for sea animals but for people.

Industry was pursued with the same abandon.

Deceptive surface

Here in the Archangel region, a territory as large as France, the woods fade into tundra and then into the ice of the Arctic

Circle.

This time of year, the city of Archangel, which is 130 miles from the Arctic Circle, is covered with a fresh layer of glittering snow.

Ice fishermen dot the Dvina River. A brisk wind blows fresh air across the land.

But the brightness and the remoteness, the antiseptic whiteness, the lightly populated countryside, belie the truth.

The 1.6 million people of the Archangel region live amid environmental disaster.

Archangel produces nearly all of Russia's paper supply, along with turpentine and cellulose. The region is the world's biggest exporter of timber, sending off 980 million cubic feet a year.

More than half the population lives in or near the city.

The Dvina River, which supplies the city's drinking water, is seriously polluted by paper and pulp plants; researchers have found horrifying levels of dioxin, a suspected carcinogen that has proven deadly to laboratory animals.

Oil quite often is spilled as it is loaded onto ships or into storage tanks -- recently almost 90 tons poured onto the ice of the White Sea, a local official said.

Timber is cut without replenishing the forests and erosion is further damaging the waters off Archangel. A hole in the ozone above threatens. A huge diamond deposit has been discovered 60 miles north of the city, and environmentalists are struggling to prevent strip mining, which would turn now untouched land into a moonscape.

Nearly 200 miles south of Archangel, rockets arc over the sky to the east in secret military tests.

The boosters scatter to the ground, with vestiges of dangerous fuel in them.

Most terrifying of all, no one has any idea what the military is up to. "Our economy is unequaled in the world by the concentration of military factories," says Viktor S. Sadkov, a member of the regional council.

"We ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records. Just now we are starting to understand our state is a big, unitary military camp."

Profound health risks

Local health officials report cancer rates 50 to 100 percent higher than the average in Russia. Only 8 percent of the region's children are born healthy, Mr. Sadkov says. Many suffer from allergies, lung and blood diseases and various degrees of retardation.

The extent and effects of the pollution have not been seriously studied, as far as civilian authorities know. And even if most people did know their health was threatened, they are trapped. The law forbids citizens to move to another city without a special permit.

"The health of the population is declining, but we cannot say what is causing it because we never investigated it," says Anatoly P. Minayev, director of ecology for the regional government.

Much of the despoliation is blamed on the old central authorities. "The general reason is colonial exploitation of the north," complains Vladimir D. Kozlov, director of research at a 2-year-old ecological institute here. "The preservation of nature was neglected as well as the health of people."

The reason was simple economics, he said. Safety precautions cost money. "The nuclear submarine Komsomolets sank for free," Mr. Kozlov says."And it will cost $300 million to get it back."

The submarine sank on the edge of the Barents Sea, a result of poor design, training and maintenance, killing 42 people.

Last week, on the third anniversary of the sinking, Capt. Aleksei Nikolayev, deputy commander in chief of the Navy, says the poverty-stricken Commonwealth of Independent States can afford routine maintenance for only half of its naval ships.

Twelve submarine nuclear reactors and three icebreaker reactors were dumped off Novaya Zemlya in the last two or three decades, according to Greenpeace, an environmental organization. More than 17,000 containers of liquid and solid radioactive waste also were dumped there.

Mr. Kozlov said one test sample revealed such a high level of dioxin in the Dvina that he is unwilling to disclose it. "It was so frightening I can't mention it," he says. "It would cause a scandal. It would be irresponsible. This was only one sample, and you must take many."

The Archangel authorities lack a $100,000 Hewlett-Packard device that can register the dioxin level, Mr. Kozlov said. Perhaps, he says somewhat humorously, someone could donate one as humanitarian aid.

Sources here say that the dioxin -- created from paper bleaching operations -- is 1,000 times higher than the level permitted in Russia, and 2 million times higher than what is permitted in the United States. Tests have shown dioxin can suppress the human immune system, which would leave a person vulnerable to infection.

Mr. Kozlov says the level of methyl mercaptan in the air here is twice that permitted in Russia. Methyl mercaptan, used by paper mills to turn wood chips into pulp, smells like rotten eggs. It is an eye, lung and skin irritant and highly toxic to fish.

"Many people knew for a long time there were explosions on Novaya Zemlya," says Viktor F. Tolkachev, deputy editor of Volna, a local newspaper. "But people here were proud of it because it was preventing you [Americans] from attacking us. And still many feel this way."

One day at a time

Sergei Fyodorov, chairman of Ecology of the North and editor of a weekly business newspaper, said that economic hardship has sapped the anti-nuclear fervor generated six years ago by the explosion at nuclear reactors in Chernobyl.

"Now people live just for one day," he says. "They don't think into the future. After Chernobyl, radioactive meat was sent here and of course it provoked indignation. Now people say let it be radioactive, just give us meat. It might cause sickness sometime in the future and it might not, but one is hungry every day."

Not everyone feels that way. A group of eight local residents, accompanied by a Norwegian journalist, plans to ski 500 miles across the ice and snow to Novaya Zemlya to draw attention to their anti-nuclear cause. They expect to set off on the monthlong trip this weekend, braving bitter cold and polar bears. This is a do-it-yourself trip: they tore apart Soviet flags and sewed them into outdoor gear.

The expedition is backed by a feisty group of environmentalists named Toward Novaya Zemlya, a play on words in Russian that also means Toward a New Earth. "We don't think we can make any real progress until we begin to privatize industries," says Alexei I. Klimov, an organizer of the group. "The state will not punish the state."

It will be exceedingly difficult to change the way the paper companies operate. To close them down would be disastrous to the local and national economy -- there's a desperate shortage of paper. And it's politically impossible. Many of the regional officials have strong ties to the plants.

A few weeks ago the conservative majority on the regional council voted against declaring the region a "zone of ecological catastrophe." It would scare people, they say.

"If you're normal," Mr. Sadkov says, "you should be scared of this. But then you have to break the psychological barriers that have been imposed all these years and do something about it."

Facts must be gathered, Mr. Kozlov says, and the cash-strapped government must come to terms with a hugely expensive, overwhelming problem. "We're optimistic. That's all that remains us," Mr. Kozlov says with resolute cheerfulness. "Maybe we'll have to import revolution from Latin America instead of exporting it as we formerly did."

The annual hunt for the harp seal is under way now in the White Sea. The survivors are floating on ice floes toward the Barents Sea off Novaya Zemlya, along their long-traveled route.

In the fall, they will return to the White Sea, having crossed once more through poisonous waters.

"We are scared," says Mr. Sadkov. "If the seals are sick then the fish probably are diseased. We can only guess what will happen to us."

Outside the regional government building stands a Thirties-era monument of a rough-hewn northerner, his arm draped over a reindeer.

A quote from Lenin is written in golden letters, the volume and page cited just as a Biblical phrase might be in the West: "The Northern Forests have to give 'up to half a billion rubles a year in the shortest period of time from now.' "

The forests have given up that, and much, much more. And no one knows if it can be put back again, or at what price.

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