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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Toxic Mercury Dumped in Siberia

The shadow of Minamata, the Japanese town that became a symbol of the horrors of industrial pollution, is hanging over the Angara River in the Irkutsk region.

High levels of mercury have been detected in people, fish and shellfish there, leading scientists and environmental activists to compare the region's plight to Minamata Bay.

Mercury that was dumped into the waters off Japan decades ago contaminated fish and accumulated in the tissues of local residents who depended on the fish for food. Hundreds of people died, and women began giving birth to atrociously deformed babies.

In one town along the Angara River, researchers have found a high number of mentally disabled people, but the medical implications of the mercury poisoning in the remote East Siberian region have only begun to be studied.

For more than 27 years, a local chemical plant that sits about a kilometer from the river where it runs into the Bratsk reservoir, has been dumping mercury, a highly poisonous liquid metal.

The plant, Usolkhimprom, is continuing to dump 2.7 tons of mercury a month into ponds, from which it washes directly into the river.

"It's a slow ecological bomb, and now we are witnessing its explosion," said Anatoly Malevsky, the acting chairman of the Irkutsk regional governmental environmental committee.

After coming into contact with water and bacteria, mercury forms methylmercury, an especially dangerous compound. When it accumulates in the body's tissues, it can cause blurred vision, hearing problems, damage to the nervous system, brain lesions and birth defects.

Over the years, Usolkhimprom and another similar plant have dumped more than 550 tons of mercury, of which 83 tons is deposited in the riverbed, according to the environmental committee.

The problem surfaced in 1993, when high levels of mercury were detected in shipments of fish to and from a large fish processing plant in Balagansk, a local town.

In 1997, researchers tested fish in the region and found that in many of them the concentration of mercury was two to 10 times higher than normal.

At the same time, scientists took urine and hair samples from 130 residents of Konovalovo, a local city of a few thousand people that relies heavily on a fish diet. The concentration of mercury in children's hair was 8.7 times higher than normal. All the residents tested had high levels of mercury in their bodies.

Pavel Koval, the head of the research team from the Irkutsk-based Institute of Geochemistry, which was hired to study the extent of the environmental disaster, said it was too early to draw conclusions about the extent of the health problems.

Researchers noted, however, an unusually high number of mentally disabled in Konovalovo, Koval said.

Nikolai Kobzarenko, deputy chief engineer at the chemical plant, said he was surprised that the news about mercury dumping had provoked so much public interest.

"It's not a new problem, it has been going on ever since the beginning of this technological cycle," he said. Usolkhimprom was built on the shore of the Angara River 60 years ago. The production of caustic soda, which requires mercury, began 27 years ago. Caustic soda is shipped to the paper mills in the region and as well as abroad.

"Production of caustic soda is crucial for this region. We even had FSB (Federal Security Service) representatives come here and ask as if somebody is just trying to kill off our production by spreading rumors of environmental disaster," Kobzarenko said.

Usolkhimprom employs about 8,000 people. Kobzarenko said that if the plant was to shut down the production of caustic soda, about one-third of the workers would have to be laid off.

After the high mercury levels were detected, the regional administration demanded that Usolkhimprom change to a mercury-free production method, and 34 of the 96 devices have been shut down. The plant had promised to switch over entirely to mercury-free devices by this fall, but it now says it has no money to buy new equipment and the deadline has been pushed back to 2001.

Kobzarenko said he was not convinced that the mercury dumping was posing a real danger to human health.

"I don't know their habits," he said of the people with high mercury levels who were judged to be mentally disabled. "But maybe they are constantly drunk and that's why they have test results like this."

Greenpeace Russia, an environmental activist group, said it was outraged by the factory's attitude and the authorities' slow reaction to the contamination.

"Real ecological genocide is taking place at the Angara River. We believe that the guilty should be put behind the bars," said Roman Pukalov of Greenpeace Russia.

The Irkutsk administration has started studying the migration patterns of local fish and ways to prevent the danger from spreading.

"Minamata disease" is a poisoning that occurs in people who eat fish and shellfish contaminated by methylmercury.

In the Japanese bay, the unusually high levels of methylmercury were first detected in the late 1950s. Over the course of 36 years, 1,043 of 2,252 patients diagnosed with mercury poisoning died.

Minamata became a symbol of the horrors of industrial pollution and the plight of those suffering from the disease became immortalized by W. Eugene Smith's 1971 photograph of a mother cradling her deformed child.

In Japan, 40 years ago, the government installed 939 acres of nets to stop contaminated fish from moving to other areas.

"In Japan, they simply forbade fishing in the area and the disciplined population obeyed. But I don't know what would stop our people," said Malevsky of the environmental committee. He added that Irkutsk authorities have appealed to the federal government for help, but have received no response so far.

The Angara River runs north from Lake Baikal, which is not threatened by the mercury poisoning.