Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dioxins, DDT Plague Dirty Dzerzhinsk

DZERZHINSK,Central Russia -- This city, 400 kilometers east of Moscow on the Oka River, was once the proud capital of the Soviet chemical industry. Now it contends for a less-flattering title: Russia's most-polluted city.

Dioxin, mercury and DDT contaminate the city's soil and the waters of the Oka. Public awareness of the contamination makes it difficult for those who want to leave to sell their apartments.

But many are unwilling to believe what they read about industrial pollution and long not for cleanups but for the industry to return to its former prominence. With the struggling factories still providing what remains of the town's livelihood, the 300,000 residents of Dzerzhinsk are bound, willingly or not, to a toxic benefactor.

Environmentalists say the scientific evidence is irrefutable.

"Dzerzhinsk is one of the dirtiest cities in Russia, maybe even the world," said Alexei Kiselyov, a Greenpeace environmental expert, at a recent press conference to present a report on dioxin contamination in Russia.

The Greenpeace report said that women in Dzerzhinsk had "unusually large" amounts of dioxin in breast milk, which could come from on-the-job contamination or from food. The report concluded that there had to be still-active sources of contamination, because dioxin is found in sewage and snow.

Dioxins are by products of chemical processes and probably cause cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental research conducted in 1994 by Dutch specialists and Dront, an environmental movement based in Nizhny Novgorod, revealed mercury and the pesticide DDT in the Oka river and town's soil. Public hearings on the state of the environment ensued and were attended by directors of the largest chemical factories, town and oblast authorities, geologists and environmentalists.

But local officials say they do not have the money to attack the problem. The end of the centrally-planned economy hit Dzerzhinsk hard. Its ten sprawling chemical factories, heavily concentrated in the east of the city, are now working at only 20 percent of capacity. In 1996, they produced 35 percent of 1991 output.

"It used to be considered prestigious to work in Dzerzhinsk," said one former chemical engineer from the Zarya factory who declined to be named. "Of course we live too close to the factories but you don't notice the smell after a while. Now with all this talk of the environment it has become impossible to sell your apartment and retire elsewhere." Dutch experts needed further information -- much of it historical -- about Dzerzhinsk's chemical waste and storage systems before they could propose a massive clean-up plan. Lena Kolpakova, coordinator of Dront's "Help the River" campaign said that the cash-strapped town is unable to pay for the vital research.

"I expect that at the end of the year, we will have worked out a methodology for cleaning up Dzerzhinsk," she said. "In normal financial circumstances it would have taken two months."

Greenpeace expert Kiselyov said they received a letter from Alexander Romanov, the mayor of Dzerzhinsk, explaining that the town was unable to pay for the research needed to acquire official state recognition of Dzerzhinsk as a dangerous environmental zone.

Greenpeace, however, says local authorities are fudging the issue. They say some would rather downplay information about pollution for fear it will scare off foreign investors.

Vladimir Prozorov, head of the municipal environmental committee, responded that the 27-member committee regularly monitors local factories' waste disposal systems, sometimes levelling steep fines at offenders. OrgSteklo, a sprawling chemical factory that manufactures chlorine and synthetic materials, was recently fined 850 million rubles for negligent disposal of waste over a three-year period. The sprawling GAZ rubbish dump on the edge of the town was fined four and a half billion rubles for polluting the environment.

Although most housing was moved from the industrial east side some 20 years ago, about five thousand people remain in apartments a mere 400 meters from the so-called White Sea -- a toxic lake behind the giant Kaprolaktam factory. The legal safety zone for such sites is two kilometers.

Residents, from health officials to ordinary citizens, often say pollution is not a big problem. In fact, many resent not the pollution, but news media reports about it.

"Outsiders seem to think that living in Dzerzhinsk is a fate worse than death," said Rita Kosolapova, who works in a street kiosk. "But my two children are healthy. I don't know what the fuss is all about."

Nikolai Katkov, a local environmental activist, said townspeople occasionally climbed through holes in the fence to bathe in the "White Sea."

As for the factory directors, said Katkov, they are aware of the problems their enterprises pose. "They are good people and they don't want to poison their own children. But the environment is not yet a priority for them. They have other problems," he said.

Local health officials downplay the effects of the chemical industry, saying Dzerzhinsk statistics are not significantly worse than those elsewhere in Russia.

While visitors may get headaches due to the chemicals in the air, those who live here have become adapted to it, said Dr. Vladimir Karpov, head of the Dzerzhinsk health administration. Their biological systems have adapted over time to the environment," he said.

"You can't separate Dzerzhinsk from what you are seeing all over Russia," Karpov said. "When I analyzed our mortality statistics, I was surprised to find many people who had lived to 100."

But Sergei Shamin, chief doctor at a clinic for work-related illnesses, said that most of the 80,000 people employed in the chemical industry work in conditions detrimental to their health, he said. Shamin says Russia's occupational health statistics show that the chemical industry surpassed mining as Russia's most hazardous line of work.

Some employees are not above exploiting the industry's hazardous reputation, Shamin said. He recalled one recent incident in which women at a local factory sprinkled highly-toxic chemicals around their workplace before the visit of a sanitary inspector, in order to retain the generous perks enjoyed by chemical workers.