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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Closes Down Polluting Factory

In a precedent-setting case, a court has forced a factory in Siberia to halt production after an environmental group revealed it allowed hundreds of tons of mercury to leak into a river and poison fish that residents depend on to survive.

But Greenpeace Russia, an environmental activist group, says the cleanup program outlined by the factory's director is not enough to cover the damage and that the government must divert money from the federal budget into cleaning up a national catastrophe.

The State Committee for the Environment took the directors of the Usolkhimprom plant in the Irkutsk region to court in September when they discovered some 1,500 tons of mercury had leached into the surrounding soil over the last 25 years.

Directors of the plant, which is situated on the Angara River, one of the largest in Russia, had until Tuesday to shut it down completely and begin the cleanup process.

"What happened at Usolkhimprom is the chemical equivalent of Chernobyl," said Roman Pukalov, the Baikal campaign coordinator for Greenpeace Russia.

The Usolkhimprom plant used mercury electrolysis to produce caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide, one of the principle ingredients in paper manufacturing.

The chemicals were then exported to Western Europe, Southeast Asia, China and the Middle East. The factory had been in operation for 25 years.

But since September, in compliance with a ruling by the Irkutsk region arbitration court, Usolkhimprom's directors have been shutting down the plant.

Of the 8,000 workers at the factory, at least half suffer from chronic mercury poisoning, including respiratory problems and damage to their nervous systems, said Pukalov, who visited the plant earlier this year and said he noticed large globules of mercury on the walls and floor of the factory.

"They were breathing in particles of mercury that were suspended in the air and absorbing it through their skin," he said.

Even more disturbing are the hazardous effects the mercury is having on the wider population of the Irkutsk region, he said. Official statistics report that 16 percent of the fish in the section of the Angara River close to the factory contain dangerous levels of mercury.

"But Greenpeace is advising residents of the area not to eat any fish at all," Pukalov said.

Usolkhimprom has allocated 24 million rubles ($1.3 million at Tuesday's official rate) toward removing the mercury from the area, but the Irkutsk environmental protection committee has put the total damage at more than 375 billion rubles ($21 billion).

"The local budget simply cannot cover this," Pukalov said. "It is up to the federal government to find the funds to avert the disaster."