MAC: Mines and Communities

Hell on Earth - Norilsk in Russia

Published by MAC on 2003-04-18

Norilsk is the world's biggest nickel and palladium producer, having overtaken Inco several years back. Since data first emerged from the ex-Soviet Union in the early nineties, it has established itself as one of the world's single biggest ambient air polluters - if not the biggest. Indeed, despite early technological assistance from outside Russia (notably from Finaland's Outokumpu Oy), its contribution to the country's sulphur dioxide burden has increased in relative terms.

Norilsk is run by a shady Russian industrial conglomerate called Interros, though its board includes, among others, an ex-senior official of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and its auditors are Deloitte and Touche - reflecting the fact that the company rasies a considerable amount of capital on London's Stock Exchange. As well as its operations on the indigenous territory of the Kola peninsular, Norilsk is also a major player in New Caledonia.

Meanwhile Norilsk has put in a bid for the virtually bankrupt Stillwater Mining company - the USA's biggest platinum and palladium group metals producer whose largest single shareholder, with 8.9%, is another British institution - Barclays Capital Corp. According to Mineweb (April 17th 2003) Barclay's is also "Norilsk's friendly institution". Obviously murkiness isn't confined just to the air in Kola.

Hell on Earth

Friday April 18, 2003

The Guardian, Nick Paton Walsh

This is the most polluted place in Russia - where the snow is black, the air tastes of sulphur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. But now a local union rep is taking on the might of Russian industry in Sunday's mayoral elections - and promising to clean up the town. Nick Paton Walsh is one of the few foreigners to be allowed in.

For Volodia Tuitin, snow comes in many colours. It can be black. Sometimes it is a dirty yellow or even pink. Tuitin has spent all his 45 years in they heavily polluted mining town of Norilsk, where he now works in a copper-smelting factory. His life has been dominated by the same skyline - a desolate set of snowdrifts and battered tower blocks - punctured by tall chimney stacks belching out heavy metals and industrial dust. This is the most polluted town in Russia.

Norilsk, a Soviet penal colony turned multi-billion dollar metal mine, is just miles from the Arctic Circle. Last winter it was minus 62C. It can be 23C in summer, but this only lasts a fortnight. Every day, according to local authorities, it blurts 5,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxides into the sky. The soot turns the snow black, the copper and sulphur provide the colour. In Norilsk, the air tastes sour from the sulphur fumes, and life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. This gives Tuitin as little as five years to live.

Tuitin, like Norilsk, was born of survivors. The son of two gulag prisoners, his father was held by the Nazis as a prisoner of war, and sent here by Stalin as a "traitor". His mother's father was classified as bourgeoisie, and found guilty by association. They married on release.

Tuitin has spent his whole life here - through the Soviet stultification of Brezhnev, and the giddy destabilisation of Perestroika - but today is the nadir. And the nearest thing to hope is the chance to vote in a new mayor this Sunday who promises to clean up the town.

"In Soviet times I felt more freedom," he says. "The only aim of our company today is profit. It is the cruellest capitalism." Under the Soviets there were many opportunities for work and we did not feel oppressed. Today there are staff cuts at the plant. Even now we have democracy, workers dare not say a word against their employers." Tuitin endures daily work in the electrolysis plant. Here, toxic fumes blind the senses, forcing him and his colleagues to wear respirators. Lists of dead workers adorn the walls of the plant's lobby, usually men "only 50 or 52 years old", Tuitin says. Many of his colleagues hide their illnesses to avoid losing shifts. "If I lose my job, then I won't find another place to work in this town. What will my family eat? We go to work despite knowing conditions are bad. Forced work like this is normally called slavery."

The Norilsk Mining Company, owners of Tuitin's plant, produce one seventh of all the factory pollution in Russia. Each year they churn out over two million tonnes in waste gas, and 85 million cubic metres of dirty water, according to the few figures provided by the Russian government. Its impact, ecologists say, is felt in Norway and Canada, and is killing off the forest tundra for hundreds of miles. Locals say the snow is yellow for 30 miles around the town.

Norilsk is caught in a meteorological trap - stacks to its east, west and south mean the city is hit whichever way the wind blows. Cut into the layers of ice on the street, and the black soot streaks through the compacted snow. Blizzards shut Norilsk's airport for days at a time; visibility is often no greater than 200 metres. Since November 2001, Norilsk has been shut to foreigners, one of 90 "closed towns" in Russia where Soviet levels of secrecy persist. The authorities say they want to keep out Azerbaijani traders, flocking to the "economic zone" to sell goods to the comparatively well-paid miners, and prevent "spreading crime".

Yet the measure has other obvious advantages, protecting the town from outside scrutiny. It took me a month to get the correct pass into the town from the local branch of the Russian security services, the FSB, and three attempts to get on a plane that could land in the arctic weather. On landing, the police boarded the plane to check my documents.

I arrived in a town in the grip of as much of an electoral frenzy as is possible in horizontal blizzards, minus 23C, and a quasi-police state.

Sunday's choice is between the company man - a clean-cut businessman, Sergei Shmakov, keen on a prosperous industry - and the union's man - a wholesome rep called Valeri Melnikov, keen on pay rises, ecological improvements, and £20 extra compensation for the ills of the smog for everyone, each month.

The pair are unimaginative in their dismissal of each other. Shmakov is the "company stooge", while Melnikov is "in the pay of Norilsk Nickel's competition", who strive to lessen the plant's profitability by adding to its daily costs. As the race heats up, the union's top bods have come up from Moscow to manage the campaign. The stakes are high. In Russia, big business runs much of the country, so few even raised an quizzical eyebrow when, last year, the co-chairman of Norilsk Nickel, Alexander Khloponin, was elected governor of the local Krasnoyarsk region. Last year, he declared his income to be £1m a month, but reportedly earned £30m in share dividends alone. A future Mayor Melnikov would be a thorn in a plump, very well-tailored side.

While Shmakov has plastered the town in billboard posters of himself, Melnikov's profile was instead raised when he and 54 other union workers went on a two-week hunger strike in January over conditions. As the rest of Russia puzzled over why Arctic miners living amid thick smog would choose to make their lives any more miserable by starving themselves, Melnikov and his colleagues locked themselves in their campaign office, and kept to the mineral water.

There were no lunch breaks, and Melnikov is now a scrawny shadow of the plump former sailor pictured on his campaign leaflets. "We got the attention of the country, showing them that life in Norilsk was far from perfect," he says. "But at the same time Moscow's TV screens show our bosses getting awards for responsible social behaviour." Local women still come to his office to shake his hand and thank him for his calorific and personal sacrifice. But most locals see Sunday's elections as still another battle between "company men". Gloom is the order of the day, and the toll on the workers is rising. Union reps told me that four workers had died in the past fortnight, two that weekend. They were aged 42, 49, 52 and 55. The cause of death was unknown.

A Norilsk Nickel spokeswoman would not confirm the deaths, but said that if they died at home, it was not company business. She also declined to comment on the ecological situation, saying they were too busy. She thought nothing of giving me a report that said only 4% of adults in the town were healthy. Irina Pogrebenko, an ecologist with links to the company, said that many workers were born in other areas of Russia and not used to the Arctic climate, and that alcoholism was rife and exercise rare.

The company's pension policy speaks volumes. The hardest working 12% can retire at 45. As one worker said: "You pay all your life towards a pension you don't live to collect." As retired workers move away, it is virtually impossible for locals to keep records of when and how they die.

Norilsk's children bear the brunt, perhaps, keen to break out of the cycle of fathers and sons who live, work and die around the factories. Denis Yamskikh, 17, had skin allergies from the age of two. "It made his skin red and itchy," says his mother, Sveta. Today, Sveta says, Norilsk Nickel gives her husband even less information about pollution than the Soviets gave her father.

They cannot afford to leave Norilsk, their wages and home not worth enough to buy a house elsewhere. Denis is studying to be a tour-guide, for anywhere other than Norilsk. On one holiday away from the city, Denis's skin cleared up immediately.

Their plight typifies that of Norilsk families. The £300-£500 a month a worker earns is enough to live on, barely. When a "cleaner" factory was opened, workers soon discovered they didn't get danger money for enduring the pollution, and it quickly faltered. The town's isolation means they pour their wages into company-owned shops and facilities.

They live, work, spend and reproduce for the company. The money goes round, and eventually people pass away. As one worker said: "In Soviet times, people knew it was their town, and looked after it. But today, they try to come here for 10 years, make money, and then leave. They don't care and neither does the company. It wants to squeeze this town dry, like taking the juice from a lemon."

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