Pollution Fears Surround Ossetian Zinc Factory

By Viktor Buividas

VLADIKAVKAZ, North Ossetia, January 23, 2006 (ENS) - "Itís difficult to breathe, especially in bad weather," said 20 year old Alina. "Itís poison, like a gas attack!" added Galina, 42. "You canít take your child out for a walk. You have to keep the doors and windows shut tight Ė itís the only way to escape."

Residents of Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, say the air they breathe is badly polluted, and they blame a zinc plant in the city even though managers say huge improvements have been made and most of the eco-problems are a thing of the past.

North Ossetia is one of the sovereign republics of Russian Federation. The highly developed industrial republic is situated on the northern slopes of the central Caucasus between two of the highest mountain peaks in Europe, Elbrous and Kazbeck.

The Elektrozinc plant plays a major role in the local economy, and with 3,500 people on its payroll, is the biggest employer in Vladikavkaz. When the plant was built in 1904, it was on the outskirts of the city, but it was swallowed up by urban sprawl and now stands in the middle of a residential area.

Ivan Alborov, professor of ecology at Vladikavkazís mining and metallurgy institute, said he believes the plant accounts for most of the industrial pollution in the city.

There seems to be general agreement that in past years, before the present management took over, Elektrozinc was a fairly dirty plant.

According to Alborov, when doctors tested hair samples from children at a nearby kindergarten eight years ago, they found 10 times the permitted concentration of lead. That gives some indication, he says, of the lead many local people must now still be carrying inside them.

Vladikavkaz

Street in the city of Vladikavkaz, the industrial center of North Ossetia. (Photo courtesy Toma Kulaeva)
Biology professor Lidia Chopikashvili said that in the period from 1990 to 2000, between 40 and 45 out every 1,000 newborn babies in Vladikavkaz had some defect, and more than a quarter of pregnancies ended in miscarriages.

She too blames Elektrozinc, although she accepts that traffic pollution and other factors such as poor diet also contributed to these figures.

In 2003, a court ordered the zinc plant to close, following a lawsuit by government agencies and environmental groups. The company was then taken over by one of Russiaís largest companies, UMMC-Holding, and it was agreed that the new management would resolve all the environmental problems before 2007.

Sergei Golomzik, the plantís deputy director, says that UMMC had done much more than it was required to, so that pollution had been cut by 90 percent since the takeover.

"We have spent 156 million roubles (US$5.5 million) on dealing with environmental problems. This is an unprecedented move, especially as according to the agreement we only had to spend 90 million," he said. "Iím not saying our factory doesnít harm the environment - but we are making immense progress."

Taimuraz Tsogoyev, spokesman for the North Ossetian governmentís environmental protection committee, agreed that Elektrozincís record is far better than it used to be.

"In July 2005, there was an emission of sulphur anhydride from the sulphuric acid workshop and the company was fined around 30,000 roubles," Tsogoyev said. "But I should say that there are no longer the large-scale accidents that there were in 2003."

One gauge of this improvement, said Tsogoyev, is the fall in the number of complaints from local residents. "We get alerts by our phone hotline. People ring in from the streets nearby. In 2003, we were getting about 70 calls a day. Now itís changed - in the last three months, there have only been three calls, I think."

Some observers are less sanguine about the progress made to date. Natalya Merkulova, a Russian federal-level official responsible for consumer rights, said that untreated water was pouring into the nearby Sobachya Balka river and that the topsoil near the factory was heavily contaminated with lead.

"Elektrozinc is greatly damaging the health of Vladikavkazís population, even under the new UMMC management," said Merkulova.

Golomzik denied all her allegations.

metallurgy

Melting metal at an UMMC factory (Photo courtesy UMMC)
Alborov was sceptical of talk of improvement, saying, "Twenty-two months have gone by, and what do we have? Three million tonnes of clinker still lies within the factoryís grounds. It belches out smoke and dust and contaminates the environment with noxious substances. And the waste that is left over from re-smelting the scrap metal is very toxic."

According to Alborov, dioxins have been found to be present in central Vladikavkaz.

But Golomzik denied that any dioxins are present on the factoryís premises. On Alborovís claim that huge amounts of clinker are still lying around, he said substantial amounts of worked out ore are now being re-processed at the plant, and half the total amount has now gone.

In theory, Russian law says there should be a kilometer wide safety zone around a plant like Elektrozinc, and all residents and schools should be moved out of it.

That has never been the case, and according to Merkulova, acceptable levels of pollution are currently being exceeded two or threefold within a one kilometer radius of the plant.

Golomzik argues that once harmful emissions of the factory have been substantially reduced, any barrier zone could be narrower than one kilometer. Critics like Alborov argue the reverse Ė that a kilometer is not enough.

In October 2005, a large cloud of bright red dust issued from the factory. According to factory official Yevdokiya Irzhakovskaya, the cloud came from a breakage in a workshop, and the dust did not pose a serious threat to health.

Whether or not the current emission levels still pose any health risk, residents say the smell alone makes life unpleasant for them.

"I'm no longer young, so I go out onto the balcony to get some air, but very often I have to go back in and close everything up, even the ventilation window," said Zhanna, a 62 year old woman who lives just a few hundred meters from the factory. "The wind blows a strong chemical stink this way from the direction of Elektrozinc. Itís literally impossible to breathe!"

Alborov says he too suffers, "I have to cover my nose with a handkerchief when I go out onto the balcony or else I canít breathe. And I donít live near the factory, but right over on the other side of the river Terek."

{Published in cooperation with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). Viktor Buividas is a correspondent with the "Puls Ossetii" newspaper in Vladikavkaz. IWPRís North Caucasus editor Valery Dzutsev contributed to this article.}