GRIGORYEVKA, Soviet Union -- When Occidental Petroleum Corp. signed the contract in 1973 to build a huge fertilizer plant and port on the Black Sea, it was hailed as the "biggest deal ever."
Occidental Chairman Armand Hammer, a longtime advocate of closer U.S.-Soviet ties, called the gigantic chemical complex "the crowning achievement of our relations with the Soviet Union."
But now environmental activists are trying to close parts of the project as a threat to Odessa, a southern Ukrainian city less than 10 miles from the plant that has a population of more than 1 million.
Odessa residents will go to the polls tomorrow to vote in a referendum on closing what the City Council calls the plant's "most dangerous facilities," which include four massive tanks for storing ammonia and equipment for pumping it aboard ships.
Environmentalists and factory managers have been sparring through the media to sway public opinion in one of the Soviet Union's first referendums on an environmental issue.
The danger of an accident, environmentalists say, is the greatest threat, because ammonia explodes at a low temperature and then forms a cloud, which can be blown by wind over populated areas. Inhaled, ammonia can be fatal.
Aside from the danger, nearly 90 percent of the ammonia and a quarter of the nitrogen dioxide in Odessa's highly polluted air comes from the plant, according to a state-commissioned report that called the factory one of the "most dangerous" enterprises in Odessa.
Officials at the Odessa Portside Factory contend their enterprise is responsible for only 1 percent of Odessa's air pollution and does not significantly pollute the water. They say that in the event of an accident, any ammonia cloud would quickly disperse and never reach the city.
The Grigoryevka complex -- which also processes ammonia into urea, a chemical used in fertilizers and plastics manufacture -- has the largest ammonia storage capacity. The complex was a key part of a $20 billion, long-term fertilizer agreement that Occidental made with Moscow during the first easing of U.S.-Soviet tensions in the 1970s.
Factory workers remember the plant's opening day in August 1978 as a celebration of modern technology and the achievements of the Soviet system.
But since then, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or political openness, has given birth to an environmental movement, which has changed strikingly the public opinion about the factory and Hammer.
"Hammer is an anti-hero here," said Alfred Tsykalo, a chemist, ecologist and member of the Odessa city council. "Many people feel resentful that, in spite of the fact that Hammer's ancestors are from this area, he put his huge, harmful factory here so he could make a lot of money."