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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Dzerzhinsk (der- JZINSK), a once-secret city 300 miles east of Moscow once housed the Soviet Union's chemical industry. Today, it manufactures consumer goods -- including soaps, car parts and plastics in factories that are still dumping massive amounts of pollution into the air, land and water. Beth Knobel reports.


CURWOOD: Most Russians have probably never heard of Dzerzhinsk, a once-secret city 300 miles east of Moscow, that housed the Soviet Union's chemical industry. During the Soviet days, Dzerzhinsk produced chemical weapons. Today, it manufactures consumer goods, including soaps, car parts, and plastics. Seventy percent of the city's 300,000 residents still work in the chemical plants, and those factories are still dumping massive amounts of pollution into the air, land, and water. Outside scientists are getting into Dzerzhinsk for the first time. They say that decades of chemical production have left the city coated with toxic wastes. Beth Knobel has our report.

(High-speed machinery whining)

KNOBEL: Block Number 42 in the massive Orgsteklo plastics factory looks like it hasn't been painted in decades. Inside the rundown warehouse, little plastic beads are formed into sheets of plexiglass, which are cut and then sold around Russia. In the process, the factory creates a putrid, burning smell, spewing toxins into the atmosphere, blanketing the whole town with pollution. Plant managers of the 60-year-old factory know they're destroying the air and water in Dzerzhinsk, but their main concern is keeping the factory's 6,000 workers on the job. Konstantin Varov is the company's general director.

VAROV: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: What can I say? The biggest problem is the age of our equipment. Economic times are so tough, we can't buy much modern equipment. That's the root of our problem.

KNOBEL: The Orgsteklo plastics plant illustrates the paradox of Dzerzhinsk. Industry keeps the city alive, but it's also slowly, quietly poisoning its inhabitants. Unregulated dumping of chemicals and waste water has littered the ground with toxic pollution, which has leaked into the ground water, and seeped into the crops. Researcher Alexei Kislov of the Russian office of Greenpeace estimates that the pollution, especially dioxins, is cutting the average lifespan of people in Dzerzhinsk by 15 years.

KISLOV: We've never seen in Russia such polluted soil, water, and air like in Dzerzhinsk.

(Walking on clinkers)

KNOBEL: Outside the plastics plant, my nostrils start to burn as I approach a chemical pond hidden in some reeds. The size of 2 city blocks, the pond's water is an eerie shade of orange, with thick slicks of oily black chemicals on top. The mix is so dense, that rocks I throw in--


KNOBEL:--linger on the surface before sliding into the murky ooze. Dozens of rusted metals barrels sit in and around the chemical lake. They're partially decomposed, and one disintegrates when I touch it lightly with my boot.

(Rattle of rust crumbling)

KNOBEL: What is, or was in them, nobody knows.

(Rumble of wind)

KNOBEL: A few miles away, I find another lake. The locals call it the "White Sea." Dust blown up by the strong winds quickly coats me as I approach it. About 100 acres in size, it's ringed with icebergs of dry chlorine. Most of the water is gone, leaving a 3-foot thick blanket of chemical waste. While the toxic layer looks hard as cement, it's soft to the touch, and blows off in a strong breeze. From sites like these, dioxins and other toxic chemicals contaminate the air, water, and local food supply. Over the decades, 3 generations of Dzerzhinsk residents have been exposed to the pollution, and doctors say the effects are starting to show.

(Infant cries amid concerned adult voices beyond)

KNOBEL: At Dzerzhinsk's second maternity hospital, about 2 dozen infants, swaddled tight in blankets, cry themselves to sleep. The staff here has noticed a increasing amount of what they say are dioxin-related problems in the city's children. They say the rate of birth defects here is 3 times the already high national average in Russia. Many are born with weak immune systems. The hospital's head doctor, Grachya Muradyan, has been delivering babies here for 30 years.

MURADYAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: What we see here among women is gross hormonal imbalance, uterus disruption, problems in childbirth, and the outward signs of this include hair growth on the stomach and the breasts. It's showing up in the second or third generation of women born in Dzerzhinsk.

KNOBEL: Residents of the city know about the pollution-related health problems, but for most of them, like this pregnant woman, there's no emotional or economic incentive to leave.

WOMAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: Our city it is horrible. The ecological situation is very bad, but I don't want to leave this city. It's my home.

KNOBEL: Nearby, a man carrying his infant son says he'd leave Dzerzhinsk if he could. But, trained to work in a plastics factory, he has nowhere else to go.

MAN: (Speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: We have an ocean of problems, and they're getting worse. I hope my little son won't grow up in Dzerzhinsk. It's my dream that he'll move somewhere else.

KNOBEL: City officials try to play down the pollution problem, repeating, like a mantra, that the problems of Dzerzhinsk parallel those of other cities with heavy industry in America and Europe. But when pressed, officials like Mayor Aleksander Romanov admit the dioxin problem is serious. Still, he says, unemployment is rising, and in the short term, his constituents must work, regardless of the environmental cost.

ROMANOV: (speaks in Russian) TRANSLATOR: The fact of the matter is that ecology and economics are different sides of the same coin. The problem of ecology can't be solved without addressing the economy, and vice versa. So these two problems must be addressed in tandem. A plan has already be worked out, so we here look at the future with optimism, and I'm sure we'll find a way to conquer both problems.

KNOBEL: There is one long-term solution. Mayor Romanov and his team have drafted plans to try to attract foreign investors to the area, with their new, cleaner methods of production. Part of the plan calls for federal tax breaks for clean businesses that move into Dzerzhinsk. To get those tax breaks, officials are trying to get the Dzerzhinsk declared an environmental disaster zone. But Dzerzhinsk has yet to submit its application for disaster status to the federal government. The city worker preparing it has been out ill for 2 months. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Knobel in Dzerzhinsk, Russia.



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