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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russian Village Fears A Toxic Time Bomb

GORNY, Central Russia -- The Russian village of Gorny, at the northern fringes of the vast Asian steppe, is unremarkable except for the herd of camels at the nearby state farm and the chemical time bomb ticking at its edge.


Three kilometers from the local administration building, recently adorned with a new coat of white paint, the Russian army keeps a dangerous heritage from the communist past.


Several thousand tons of highly toxic agents are stored behind high walls and barbed wire, substances to be used in chemical weapons which locals say could wipe out the village if there were an accident.


The people in Gorny, in the Saratov region some 1,000 kilometers south of Moscow, are scared of the poison that experts say should be destroyed as soon as possible.


"Everyone is afraid. Everyone is against the storage facility," said 35-year-old Tatyana, who sells socks and shoes on Gorny's marketplace.


Local council chief Alexander Timofeyev said there had already been some minor problems with the chemical dump, which the Soviet army opened in 1943. "But everything was always under control," he added.


The residents would like to believe him. "Accidents? What do I know about accidents?" a middle-aged fireman, on duty at the local fire station, asked skeptically.


He takes comfort from the idea that nothing really bad has happened -- yet. "Otherwise we would not be here anymore, I guess," he said.


But fears remain in this village of some 6,000 people, where life is difficult and paid work hard to find. "The children get ill very often," said Tatyana.


Other locals remember how everybody closed doors and windows last year when a strange smell floated across the village.


Experts say they have every reason to be afraid.


"They have to start the disposal. They [the vats] cannot be stored forever. Nobody can give any guarantees, things are already rusting," Pavel Movchan, the commander of the storage facility, told Russian television recently.


Timofeyev said he would like to get rid of the deadly stockpile. "Imagine, we have thousands of tons of chemicals. Is this dangerous? Of course it is," he said.


The dump spreads across several hectares of flat land, surrounded by warning signs saying: "Stop. Danger." It is guarded by armed soldiers and can only be entered with special permission.


Viktor Danilov-Danilyan, head of Russia's state environmental committee, said storage facilities such as those at Gorny were worn out.


"To continue storing them as they are today in many cases would be incredibly dangerous," he said in January.


The army, politicians and President Boris Yeltsin all agree.


The State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in April resisted national and international pressure to ratify a treaty banning the production, storage and use of chemical weapons.


Cash-strapped Russia says it lacks the money to destroy the 40,000 officially declared tons of toxic substances that are stored in Gorny and six other places in the country and has asked the West for more help.


The United States, eager to wipe out all stockpiles of toxic agents to prevent trafficking in chemical weapons, is giving Russia some $140 million assistance for the destruction.


But this is only part of the $5 billion that experts say is needed to destroy the poison in the next 10 years.


Jakov Starez, director of a research institute at the Tantal former military factory in Saratov, is bitter about the lack of funds.


Starez says he has worked out a way to destroy organic chemical weapon agents, of which he says Russia still stores some 8,000 tons. The chemicals enter the body through the skin and the lungs and destroy the nervous system.


He says his method is both cheaper and safer than other ways of disposal and is looking for $1.5 million to develop it in full.


"The army likes it, the politicians like it, they say they want it. But there is no money," said Starez, whose company cannot afford to invest in the project.


There are many plans. U.S. aid will go to fund a new destruction plant near Shchuchye, in the southern region of Kurgan. U.S. experts say they hope to start construction next year.


The blister gas in Gorny is earmarked for priority disposal and Timofeyev said construction of a destruction facility has already started.