'A small city forgotten by God and man' Dioxin-poisoned Russian factory town is angry at system

December 31, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

CHAPAYEVSK, Russia -- Nobody knows how many people died here serving a regime and an ambition that no longer exist.

Two generations of townsfolk worked and fell ill answering the call to protect the Soviet motherland by manufacturing chemicals for weapons, herbicides and fertilizers.

They only fully understood the terrible risk two years ago when they discovered their city had been poisoned by dioxins, a highly toxic chemical. They begged the government to spare the new generation -- the children -- by cleaning up Chapayevsk.

But the Soviet government that created Chapayevsk is gone. The Russian government, trying to create a new country out of the debris of the past, has no time or money for expensive emergencies in the provinces.

The future seems hopeless. "This is a small city," says Lev Fyodorov, a scientist, "forgotten by God and man."

The 82,000 people who live here are trapped. Escape is impossible. Apartments cannot be found elsewhere. Parents feed their children food grown in soil they think is poisoned by dioxins. They drink water contaminated with dioxins. They suffer a whole range of illnesses, many brought on by weakened immune systems. And no one outside Chapayevsk seems to care.

"I'd like to run away," says Pyotr M. Vasyukhin, 54, a chemist who worked at the Factory of Chemical Fertilizers for 25 years, "but I have nowhere to go.

"I have a daughter and granddaughter. They are both in poor health. I didn't know it, but I poisoned my own daughter. I brought those poisons home on my clothes. I poisoned her more than myself because she was younger. And every day it gets worse.

"The wastes dumped at the factory have become raw materials for dioxins, and the area will be polluted for decades. It is like a dioxin reactor here. Let the world know that in Chapayevsk there's a dioxin reactor, and it is uncontrolled, and it is killing, and the motive in creating it was only for a miserable profit."

The abandoned illusion is perhaps the bitterest part of it all for the people of Chapayevsk, an ordinary town deep in the Russian heartland, in the south near the mighty Volga River.

For years they endured poor housing, dangerous jobs and marginal living standards -- one-third of the population has no running water or gas. But they sustained themselves in the belief that their suffering was vital to the survival of a grateful and glorious nation.

Now a new vision of the past is offered up. Now they see it as a time when they were required virtually to sacrifice themselves on the altar of a false and indifferent god -- communism. They see a system that exploited the many for the benefit of the faceless system itself, one that used up people as carelessly as it %J destroyed the air, water and soil.

"The system we had was not designed for human beings," says Mayor Yuri N. Lipchenko, 43. "People were just another raw material. They exploited human beings, and then threw them out as wastes. It explains why our manpower was so cheap."

Mr. Vasyukhin, who was appointed the fertilizer factory's chief economist in 1984, says the leaders of the Soviet Union invariably preferred cheap, polluting technology over more expensive, safer manufacturing processes. They didn't care what people thought.

"Communism didn't care about people, especially in the provinces," he says. "This is our situation. They made us slaves. Now everyone has realized the experiment failed. It's ecological genocide. It is the same sort of tragedy as Chernobyl. The scale will grow. Fertile lands will be devastated."

In June, the newly aware Chapayevsk appointed Igor V. Muzurov, a 40-year-old biologist, as its first ecology officer. He is frustrated that no one in Moscow has answered the numerous and detailed calls for help.

"The people worked for the whole country, and got pollution in return," Mr. Muzurov says. "The profit was taken for the whole country, and we were left with dirt. It would only be justice to get some investment from the center [Moscow]."

The residue of failure

Four of Chapayevsk's five big chemical plants belong to the military-industrial complex. In the last year, the military orders have disappeared. The four factories are only going through the motions of operation. Their loss of business has meant that 70 percent of the city's income has disappeared, leaving an expensive problem behind.

Dioxins are organic compounds created when substances containing chlorine are processed at high temperatures. They are considered highly toxic to humans and are suspected of causing cancer as well as irritating the skin, though some U.S. scientists now argue they are not as deadly as once thought.

Dioxins can affect the kidneys and gastrointestinal and nervous systems, says Mr. Vasyukhin. The immune system can be suppressed, and Chapayevsk has noted an increase of heart attacks in men.

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