Russian company-town choking on environmental hazards

A bleak sight greets visitors when arriving in the small Russian town of Karabash. A legacy of environmental destruction once earned it the reputation as one of the most polluted towns in the world.

Karabash, located in Russia’s southern Chelyabinsk oblast, is home to a large copper smelter. A century of toxic fumes and chemical waste from the plant has left the landscape devastated. And it is the residents who have suffered the brunt of the consequences.

Residents here suffer from cardiovascular diseases; respiratory diseases, digestive system diseases and the level of oncological diseases here is rather high,” said Aleksey Mironov, deputy chief physician at the Karabash Town Hospital.

Under new ownership since 2003, the plant has taken on the task of minimizing past and current damages, but progress has been slow.

“We immediately began renovation,” said Alexey Baikin, chief metallurgist at the Russian Copper Company. “You can see for yourself the problems that our company has inherited. We’re doing a lot to preserve and develop Karabash but, of course, a lot still remains to be done.”

The smelter was founded to explore the region’s rich copper and has contributed to the economic progress in Russia over the last 20 years.

However, the cost of the economic gains has been enormous, with the social and environmental scars clearly visible.

Tall hills of black industrial waste surround the residents of Karabash and the air quality is extremely poor.

Today, the wind is blowing a different way. Usually, you can’t see your own outstretched arm because of gas concentrations. People are being literally poisoned,” said Karabash resident Dmitry Smolnikov.

However, the plant is the town’s lifeblood, so removing it is not an option. Back in 1987, after the town was branded an ‘environmental disaster zone,” the factory was shut down, which quickly nudged the area into poverty.

It was a relief to the people of Karabash when the plant reopened some ten years later. Even though residents knew what to expect – pollution and unhealthy working conditions – they were at least able to provide for their families.

We have a very tough employment situation here,” said Mr. Smolnikov. “I worked at those purification units [at the copper factory – ed.]. for a while. But they’re insufficient and can’t keep up).

“This industry is really dangerous, it erodes everything,” said Mr. Smolnikov. “The units [designed to absorb pollution – ed.] often fail, and all the impurities come back to the town. On the other hand, things did use to be much worse, so there have been some improvements.”

Despite millions in investment to modernize the plant, its working conditions still seem inadequate. At times it is hard to breathe. Yet many of the staff wear no breathing equipment.

There have, however, been some successes in Karabash. Waste is no longer disposed of using public water canals and the company says they are working hard to cut emissions. And with further investment plans, Karabash could one day hope for a cleaner future.

We aren’t done with the plant yet. We are going to turn the plant into a modern European-type factory. So, everything you see around the plant will soon become history,” Mr. Baikin promised.

However, for the residents of Karabash the mistakes of the past remain as palpable as ever in the present.