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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Where Mustard Gas Oozes From the Soil

MTAlexander Ivanov, left, and Ivan Danilov fishing at the Kuzminki forest lake that once served as a chemical weapons dump. They said they knew about the chemicals.
Hidden in Kuzminki forest in the southeast of Moscow is a very strange place, a clearing 10 meters in diameter where the grass doesn't grow and the surrounding birch trees are eerily bare.

Even stranger is the smell, a pungent burnt-plastic odor that somehow fails to deter sunbathers and fishermen at the nearby lake.

Chemical analysis of soil samples revealed the smell has nothing to do with plastic. It is mustard gas, a poison and strong mutagen, said ecologist Lev Fyodorov, who had samples tested by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Fyodorov said this tranquil oasis is a Soviet-era chemical weapons dump, where mustard gas, adamsite, hydrocyanic acid and phosgene are buried.

"One must speak about the hundreds of tons of chemicals still buried in the forest and under the lake," said Fyodorov, the head of the Union for Chemical Safety environmental group.

Yet the lake remains popular with fishermen, and the forest, an extension of Kuzminki Park, attracts families and romantic couples who like to stroll and picnic there on weekends. Some of the fishermen even admit to eating the fish.

"Poisoned fish, you say? Salted, it goes just fine with beer," said Alexander Ivanov, who said he knew about the deadly chemicals.

"For 70 years out of my 90, I've fished here whenever I have spare time," said Ivan Danilov, adding that he also knew about chemicals in the lake and never ate the fish but fed them to his cat.

Other visitors knew nothing about the dangerous chemicals.

"I never heard about any dumps here," said Andrei, a young man sitting on the grass with his girlfriend before gathering his belongings to leave.

Until recently, only a small number of environmentalists was concerned about the danger posed by the chemicals, buried close to the forest's present-day border with the Kapotnya suburb near the Moscow Ring Road.

Earlier this month, however, a meeting of representatives from City Hall, the Defense Ministry, the Emergency Situations Ministry, the Kuzminki forest administration and the southeastern district administration decided to create a task force to investigate.

Some of the buried chemical weapons stocks predate the Soviet Union. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Red Army inherited from tsarist Russia vast stocks of chemical weapons produced during World War I, including mustard gas, cyanides and phosgene. In 1924, the Soviet Union began to manufacture its own.

As the chemicals aged past their usage date and the bombs, shells and mines that bore them became obsolete, the stocks were disposed of in the simplest way: Red Army soldiers buried them near test grounds and storage sites.

In 1935, a new development plan for Moscow proposed extending the city's boundaries to take in the military's testing ground near the village of Kuzminki, which until then had been beyond the city limits. The plan stipulated that all chemical weapons buried there should be removed and the city should get rid of all such chemical dumps.

Although the cleanup was started, it was never completed.

Fyodorov said he recently found in the state military archives a declassified letter, dated December 1937, from the Red Army's chemical department head Mikhail Stepanov to then-Soviet Defense Minister Klim Voroshilov.

The report said that during searches of the Kuzminki forest from Oct. 7, 1937, to Nov. 15, Red Army soldiers dug out 6,855 mines, 751 artillery shells and 75 air bombs, all charged with mustard gas and lewisite, plus 904 metal cans containing 43 tons of the same chemicals, 277 containers of phosgene, hydrocyanide acid and chlorine, 30 tons of adamsite and 732 gas-charged stinkpots. The work stopped before the chemicals were fully removed due to the onset of winter.

The following year, however, Kuzminki was dropped from city development plans. Not only was the removal of the deadly chemicals suspended, but the practice of burying outdated chemical ammunition there resumed. It is unknown exactly how much remains.

It was Fyodorov, a former research professor with the Moscow-based Institute of Geochemistry, who first found the star-shaped, grassless spot exuding mustard gas in 1998.

"Mustard gas cannot exist in nature longer than several days; it breaks down," he said. "My find means that it was fresh, leaking from a worn-out container."

He brought soil samples from the spot to one of the chemical laboratories of the Russian Academy of Sciences, which officially confirmed the existence of mustard gas in the sample.

Long-term exposure to small concentrations of mustard gas can cause lung disease, cancer and genetic mutations.

According to the ecological maps on City Hall's web site, Moscow's highest rates of cancer morbidity and infectious disease are found in the neighboring Kapotnya, Kuzminki and Lyublino districts. Several industrial enterprises and greenhouses are located there, as well as Sadovod, a popular gardeners market where city authorities plan to move the Ptichy Rynok pet market.

City authorities do not deny the chemicals' existence, Fyodorov said. In 1999, City Hall's environment department invited him and the Military University of Chemical, Biological and Radiation Protection to take part in a joint investigation.

"In 1961, when the outer ring road was designed as the city's boundary, Kuzminki forest fell inside it," he said. "The military then officially handed over the test ground to city authorities."

The results of Fyodorov's archive searches, conducted under the joint investigation, are alarming. Apart from Kuzminki forest, where chemical weapons were dumped from 1918 to 1961, there are two other such dumps within Moscow -- one at Ochakovskoye Shosse in the southwest and another at Bogorodsky Val in the northeast. Bogorodsky Val is extremely dangerous, Fyodorov said, as chemicals may ooze with underground water into the nearby Yauza River, whose shores are a popular recreation site.

"The volumes of chemicals at these two sites are not as large as in Kuzminki forest, but their assortment is broader because they were used after World War II when new gases, including nerve gases, were widely produced," he said.

Five Moscow military chemical plants were burying hundreds of tons of waste containing arsenic in huge pits in Kuzminki forest for decades, he said.

The military university, which conducted field measurements in Kuzminki forest, refused to disclose its results to Fyodorov or anybody else except City Hall, saying nothing dangerous was found at the site.

"We worked on the request of the Moscow government, and the results of our survey belong to City Hall," said university spokesman Sergei Yemelyanov.

A source in City Hall's department of nature management and environmental safety, who did not wish to be identified, said that according to the university's field measurements the situation in Kuzminki forest was not dangerous. He declined to elaborate.

"This information is not for broad public distribution," he said.

Fyodorov said that by refusing to reveal the exact figures "officialdom loses all credibility in the matter."

"Deciding whether the situation is 'normal' is not their business," he said.

Meanwhile, within the planned investigation into Kuzminki forest, searches are planned to start in October under the direction of the southeastern district administration. According to the city's environmental safety department, 78 hectares of land will be explored. The cost of the work has not been disclosed.