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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Town Torn Between Jobs, Factory Fumes

TRUBINO, Central Russia -- The residents of this tranquil village of wooden houses and dilapidated factory buildings are split in two over a new chemical plant in their midst.

Their dilemma: The factory provides much-needed work for the people, many of whom have not been paid for three years, but some residents allege that the plant emits a toxic chemical which, apart from creating a pungent smell, can cause health problems

For the last two years, a small group of activists has been locked in a bitter battle with the factory and have brought their case to Russia's Supreme Court. The factory though, is backed by the local administration and residents who work at the plant.

Since August, a private company named Morava has been producing foam for furniture cushions in a part of Trubino's old silk-weaving factory, which it renovated at a cost of $7.5 million.

One of two main components of the foam, toluene diisocyanate or TDI, is a substance that can cause asthma, allergies and irritate skin. The only source of drinking water in Trubino, an artesian well, is on the factory grounds about 50 meters from a production building.

The factory owners argue the plant is safe and say that they have official government documents to prove it.

But six local activists, led by Tatyana Pantyukova, disagree. They believe the foam plant is poisoning their village and say the local administration and environment officials have too much to gain from the factory to raise any objections to it.

To date, no illnesses have been traced to the foam factory. But activists s ay it is early yet. The factory only carries out chemical processes for about 50 minutes a day and is expected to get up to full capacity in the second quarter of 1998.

"They were building regardless of our concerns," one of the activists Nina Viskova, 62, said. "And people in Trubino are already suffocating,"

Their objections though, have won Pantyukova and her fellow campaigners few friends in the village. "These activists are dinosaurs who found themselves a hobby," says Nikolai Dushkov, director of Morava's division in Trubino.

When a new piece of equipment at the factory went up in flames last year, the activists were accused of arson. "We were told we were at least 50 percent guilty," says Viskova. No one was charged.

Among the people of the village, the degree of concern about the factory and the smell that emanates from it differs between those who depend on the factory for their livelihood, and those who do not.

The Trubino chemical factory employs 79 people, 59 of them locals. The firm would not disclose its expected revenue but if they are able to sell all the foam at its current market price they could generate about $18 million in sales a year.

There are no bad smells coming from the plant, says Lyudmila Fomina, a clerk making $300 a month at Morava whose house is next to the factory wall. Two years ago, she helped Morava collect shares from veteran workers in Trubino so the company could buy a stake in the old silk factory.

But Fomina's neighbors Maria Zuyeva, 89, and Zinaida Karnaukh, 64, say on some days they cannot leave their house because of the stench. "My grandchildren are afraid to come and help me weed my plants in the backyard," said Zuyeva.

For now, in the absence of an independent environmental inspection, there is deadlock over whether the foam plant really is dangerous.

The factory management says the production is absolutely safe and demonstrates test results -- in January 1997, the plant passed a federal ecological inspection -- and powerful fire extinguishers to prove the point.

In addition, in 1997, the Shchyolkovo district sanitary-epidemiological surveillance station conducted multiple checks on the plant and ruled it was not causing pollution. Morava paid the station almost 14,000 rubles ($2,300) for tests.

"Trust me," said Natalya Kurashova, the head physician of the surveillance station. "There are no dangerous substances in Trubino's air."

The activists counter, however, that the authorities who gave the plant a clean bill of health have a vested interest. Officials at the plant admit that last year they flew the district's top health official to the Czech Republic to look at Gumatex, the company whose technology Morava adopted.

Independent State Duma Deputy Nikolai Stolyarov came out to Trubino to study local concerns over the plant. He concluded there was no problem. Now one of his former aides, Vladimir Gerasimov, is a deputy director of the factory. Another Stolyarov aide, Vasily Anushko, by his own admission visits the plant "almost daily."

On one afternoon last week, the head of local administration, Alexander Nazarchuk, was at the plant asking to borrow a tractor to clear snow from the village's roads. He clutched a letter from Morava promising to pay for a new artesian well.

But in spite of all the talk of the chemical factory bringing new prosperity to Trubino, 25 workers of the old silk factory got their termination notices recently. The letters, with no letterhead or return address, explained the firings by the absence of work.

"They cheated on us," said Olga Mazokhina, 60, who sold her shares to Morava to create opportunities for the young people. "We are trying to find some justice. But they are walking around with the money."