Children's Playgrounds And Nuclear Dumping

Some time ago, a dead man was discovered sitting outside my apartment. But I thought nothing of it. According to my neighbors, he had been slumped there for a whole day before anyone noticed. But then there are always a lot of inactive guys clutching bottles in the children's playground in front of our building and not all of them, I believe, are dead. It was only when an ambulance arrived that we were alerted to the problem. The medics flopped him onto a stretcher and sped away.

Then, a week later, a sign went up outside the building, proclaiming: "The courtyard has become dirty: Loitering Forbidden."

Now, from what I understand of the Russian character, they don't do this sort of thing just because there is a little more dog-excrement than usual sluicing around the pavement. Something very evil had found its way into the kiddies' playground and was alarming enough to warrant these drastic measures. Not alarming enough, though, to tell us what was going on.

Immediately, various theories began buzzing around the building. Someone recalled how a convoy of chemical waste slated to travel through St. Petersburg a few weeks before. Perhaps they had parked overnight in our drive. Another neighbor was sure there must have been a nuclear disaster, though how the fallout had targeted our front courtyard was never explained.

The truth turned out to be no less disturbing. After a number of anxious phone calls, we were told that a large quantity of mercury had been dumped in the playground. The woman in charge of cleaning the building -- a crazy hag who shifted dirt aimlessly from one place to another -- was also dead. We were told that the mercury was brought there by naughty children, though this explanation leaves a number of questions unanswered. Where did the children find the mercury? How many broken thermometers does it take todkill two people?

In the intervening months, St. Petersburg's environmental hazards seemed to abate somewhat. While the existence of the Chernobyl style Sosnovy Bor nuclear power plant, just 70 kilometers from the center of town has always been a little worrying, there were surprisingly few rumors of serious incidents. The military, too, seemed to have acquired the habit of tidying up after chemical warfare exercises.

Then last week, news broke that officials at Sosnovy Bor were allegedly paying bribes to Russia's nuclear monitors to conceal problems of leaking storage facilities and are employing safety practices now regarded as "insolvent." Cooling pools on the Baltic coast are losing water at the rate of hundreds of liters a day. Unsorted radioactive waste is lying around in plastic bags. I await further developments in my courtyard with a certain appalled, morbid interest.