At top of the world, the Soviet legacy is pollution

April 19, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

ARCHANGEL, Russia -- Soviet power has disappeared here, but it has left a fatal legacy.

The march toward communism cost the people of Archangel their pure air, clean water and even the health of their children. This snowy expanse near the Arctic Circle seems fouled beyond all understanding.

The damage was thorough, unrelenting and so insidious that scientists have yet to determine its extent.

The latest victims are thousands of harp seals dying of cancer from the harm the former Soviet Union inflicted upon itself and its unsuspecting people as it moved to industrialization and superpower status.

Scientists suspect that these beautiful animals with the large imploring eyes are being killed by years of irresponsible Soviet nuclear testing and dumping.

Once the seals were threatened only by hunters who club the pups to death for their luxurious, snow-white pelts. Now those that survive migrate through water so contaminated that environmentalists imagine it fairly crackles with radioactivity.

Scientists began taking blood and tissue samples from the seals two years ago, after more than a million dead starfish washed up along the White Sea coast.

They are still unsure of what killed the starfish, but the study of the seals has revealed blood pathologies consistent with long-term toxic or radioactive exposure.

"This is a problem so big and serious it goes beyond us," says Yuri K. Timoshenko, director of the marine mammal laboratory at the Polar Scientific Research Institute here.

"It goes beyond our studies and finances."

Mr. Timoshenko says it is too soon to submit findings to scientific journals, for scientists have not yet established an absolute link to the nuclear waste here.

But the evidence is strong enough that when he began to suspect recently that the Russian government would resume nuclear testing on the island of Novaya Zemlya, Mr. Timoshenko and two colleagues alerted the people of Archangel.

They published an article in a local newspaper, Pravda of the North, earlier this month warning that thousands of seals were ill with blood cancers.

"In the last decades, monstrous experiments connected with numerous nuclear weapons tests were performed on Novaya Zemlya," the article said.

"The Barents Sea and the coast of Novaya Zemlya were turned into a dump for solid and liquid radioactive waste. A catastrophic situation has been created. A real threat has emerged, not only to sea mammals but everything in the ocean. The ecological and genetic consequences are unpredictable."

Novaya Zemlya, an Arctic island twice as big as Switzerland, was cleared of its inhabitants in the 1950s to make way for nuclear weapons testing.

The frigid waters of the White and Barents seas were used as a dump for spent reactors from nuclear submarines and icebreakers.

Environmentalists say that the Soviet government operated its nuclear program with reckless disregard not only for sea animals but for people.

Industry was pursued with the same abandon.

Deceptive surface

Here in the Archangel region, a territory as large as France, the woods fade into tundra and then into the ice of the Arctic

Circle.

This time of year, the city of Archangel, which is 130 miles from the Arctic Circle, is covered with a fresh layer of glittering snow.

Ice fishermen dot the Dvina River. A brisk wind blows fresh air across the land.

But the brightness and the remoteness, the antiseptic whiteness, the lightly populated countryside, belie the truth.

The 1.6 million people of the Archangel region live amid environmental disaster.

Archangel produces nearly all of Russia's paper supply, along with turpentine and cellulose. The region is the world's biggest exporter of timber, sending off 980 million cubic feet a year.

More than half the population lives in or near the city.

The Dvina River, which supplies the city's drinking water, is seriously polluted by paper and pulp plants; researchers have found horrifying levels of dioxin, a suspected carcinogen that has proven deadly to laboratory animals.

Oil quite often is spilled as it is loaded onto ships or into storage tanks -- recently almost 90 tons poured onto the ice of the White Sea, a local official said.

Timber is cut without replenishing the forests and erosion is further damaging the waters off Archangel. A hole in the ozone above threatens. A huge diamond deposit has been discovered 60 miles north of the city, and environmentalists are struggling to prevent strip mining, which would turn now untouched land into a moonscape.

Nearly 200 miles south of Archangel, rockets arc over the sky to the east in secret military tests.

The boosters scatter to the ground, with vestiges of dangerous fuel in them.

Most terrifying of all, no one has any idea what the military is up to. "Our economy is unequaled in the world by the concentration of military factories," says Viktor S. Sadkov, a member of the regional council.

"We ought to be in the Guinness Book of Records. Just now we are starting to understand our state is a big, unitary military camp."

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