A First Class Toxic Resort
From mid-July to mid-August, Valentina Ivanovna spends her nights in a sleeping bag on a bench in the yard while renting out her one-room apartment for 1,800 rubles (around 25 EUR) per day to nature lovers from far away. Valentina, 62, is a retired school teacher from the Altai resort town of Yarovoe. Last summer, she hosted a family from Novosibirsk, a company from Kemerovo, and a group from Moscow.
There was even a jolly young couple from China. They grumbled, of course about nearly everything: the furniture in the apartment was old (from the Soviet era), the carpet was dusty, and there was nothing to do in Yarovoe except spend a drunken night in the local disco. But the amazing beauty of lake Bolshoe Yarovoe compensated for all disappointments, and Valentina Ivanovna knows that many of her guests will return to the lake to take in the sights again next year.
Of course, she herself has never even bathed in this lake and also forbade her children from doing so. Why? She fears that it might be toxic!
A Siberian health resort
The saltwater lake Bolshoe Yarovoe lies like a saucer in the lowest part of the Kulundijska steppe in the Altai Region of Russia. It is so salty that no animal exists in its waters–only Artemia, a genus of aquatic crustaceans that look like a microscopic seahorse. Artemias are ancient, dating back to the age of the dinosaurs. Their cysts can be preserved at low temperatures outside of the water and are therefore considered very valuable fish food: just throw them back into water, and crustaceans will hatch.
Cysts from Lake Bolshoe Yarovoe are sold around the world, and you can even find fashionable food supplements made from them. The famous mud from the lake consists mostly of Artemia as well. And the lake water’s composition itself is close to that of the Dead Sea, with the concentration of minerals in its brine being 160 grams per litre. People go to the lake to treat skin problems, lung disease, and nervous system disorders.
Also, fun fact: you can’t drown in this water. Nor can you dive in; you just sit in the water and read a book. Tourists like it.
The administration of the Altai Region has put great effort into developing beach tourism at the lake. During the hot summer months there are as many tourists here as at Turkish resorts; it is incredibly crowded. As Russians say, the apple has no place to fall. The short season sees some 500 thousand people who flock to the lake from cities such as Altai, Kemerovo and Omsk. The main attraction is the three beaches on the lake that are lined with restaurants, discos, guest houses, and campsites. The beaches are called quays: “Quay 22,”, “Quay 42” and “Quay 55”, the numbers reflecting the car codes of the regions from which their visitors hail. Young people party until mornings on the Quay 22, while Quay 42 has long been chosen by families with children. Quay 55 is a campsite.
There are also mud baths on the shore that have been in operation since 1953 as well as the “Khimik” sanatorium, which opened in 1972.
Raw materials for a chemical plant
“In 1989, the local government ordered people not to take mud from lake Bolshoe Yarovoe for mud baths but to transport it from nearby lake Maloe Yarovoe. And to prepare water for therapeutic baths not from Bolshoe Yarovoe water, but from imported mineral salts”, shares Vladimir Kirillov, head of the Laboratory of Aquatic Ecology of the Institute of Water and Environmental Problems of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IWEP). “It was the order of intelligent people who decided to be on the safe side after research was conducted by special services. Since then the order is still in place.”
During the war years it was found that waters of Bolshoe Yarovoe lake consist of “important strategic raw materials”, and in 1943 the huge Perekopsky chemical plant was transferred here from Crimea. A workers village built next to the plant is what later developed into the modern resort town of Yarovoe. The chemical plant stands very close to the “quays”, and its chimneys often appear on cheerful resort photos.
During the war, the plant produced additives for aircraft fuel out of the lake brine. This process involved the use of mercury chloride, an element of the first hazard class and especially dangerous to the central nervous system and brain.
“There is a site on Bolshoe Yarovoe, the so-called ‘point two’, where waste water from the plant had been released, and there is now an increased concentration of mercury in the bottom sediments”, says Vladimir Kirillov. “In this place there is more mercury than in other parts of the lake, but the level does not exceed the norms. It’s better if we don’t touch this mercury at all–maybe it will be sucked in by bottom sediments and people will not have to think about it again.”
In 1990, journalist Tamara Dmitrienko was a special correspondent for Altai Pravda in Yarovoe and investigated the situation on the lake. She believes that the concentration of heavy metals in the lake still exceeds the permissible level. According to her, in the 90s, research revealed an excess of the maximum allowable concentration of antimony, mercury and fluoride in the brine and mud of the lake.
Hazardous waste on the shore
Vladimir Kirillov says that besides this spot of mercury at a depth of only 20 centimetres, there are several other sources of chemical danger at the lake. A landfill of toxic waste is situated very close to the water. The scientist says that the waste is “the most toxic.” It was dried and stored for decades in a small area near the water protection zone. Now this part of the coast is collapsing. The winds in the area have steadily eroded a steep precipice, atop of which is the landfill. Around fifty garages have already collapsed into the water from the high northern shore. If erosion continues, the toxic waste could fall down into the water as well, a situation that once almost occurred. To avoid a catastrophe, the Altai regional authorities financed the construction of a dam there. But experts believe that this is only a temporary measure. The dam is of little help, and the waste should be reburied elsewhere.
“You just need to rebury the waste, but this is a special kind of work, for which you need money”, says Vladimir Kirillov. “The coast caved, the dam doesn’t help much, and this small, only 0.4 hectare, landfill of the most toxic waste can end up in the lake. The shore will finally fall–and that’s it. The landfill urgently needs to be moved outside the catchment area so that the water never gets there.”
“Granddads who worked at Altaikhimprom [Altai chemical plant] during war time hoped to God that landfill wouldn’t fall into the lake”, says a local resident. “Probably, they were saying it for a reason.”
The production facility where mercury compounds were made during the war is now abandoned. It is literally saturated with mercury. The cleanup project recommended by Altai environmentalists, scientists and public activists to the regional administration includes demercuration of the plant and removal of mercury residues from the walls, floor and equipment. They also propose to remove a full half-meter of the soil.
Another source of danger is the biological wastewater treatment station, which was used by the plant and the city.
“If the sewage treatment station breaks, then the wastewater will go into the lake, and it consists of… everything, you name it”, explain the local residents.
At the plant there were two lines of biological wastewater treatment stations, BOS-1 and BOS-2. While one was operating, the other one was under maintenance. In 1997, BOS-1 was shut down, and the entire burden of treating the waste fell on the run-down BOS-2. Scientists fear that sewage treatment station could break down, something that would be especially dangerous during the summer months when the population doubles because of tourists.
Lack of funding
According to experts, the elimination of all sources of danger at the lake would require approximately 1.176 billion rubles (around 2.3 mln EUR). Only then could this unique lake cure itself and fully recover, a process the local Artemia can make possible.
Unfortunately, such a cost is unaffordable per the Altai Region’s budget. The only hope is for federal programs to foot the bill. But since one environmental project in the region–the destruction of expired pesticides from the entire region at the Biysk landfill–has been recently financed by federal authorities, there is little hope for new donations from Moscow. There are 310 places in Russia where sources of environmental damage are located.
“The problem of lake Bolshoe Yarovoe is that everyone understands everything, but no one has any possibility of doing anything about it”, says Vladimir Kirillov.
The city-plant-resort can do nothing for its salvation and therefore does not do anything. It continues to live the old life: festive resort during two months of the hot Siberian summer, followed by a wary and frightened community for the rest of the year. IWEP scientists said that residents of Yarovoe came to them recently asking for the results of the coastal tests. People understand that the state most likely will not help them, so everything must be done by themselves.
“Everyone wants to live well, and it seems that everyone is happy to welcome tourists, but people sigh with relief when they leave”, locals say in Yarovoe.
Moreover, tourists refuse to follow local recommendations: no one follows the instructions on the signs on the shore: “swim no longer than 30 minutes” and “do not smear mud from head to toe”. These things are especially dangerous for people with kidney and liver pathologies and even more so if you stimulate the effects of the mud by drinking alcohol.
Scientists say that this lake is generally not suitable for a beach holiday; it is said to be able to cure some diseases, but this depends on the person and the specific condition. Effects can be negative as well. And you are also not advised to spend too much time in the water due to the salts and other minerals. Sooner or later, lake Bolshoe Yarovoe’s natural environmental balance will be destroyed due to the crowds.
“This is our common problem”, says Vladimir Kirillov. “It happens not only in the Altai region, and not only in Russia. The whole world does not know what to do with toxic chemical waste. We are just a single example of a global environmental problem. And it has to be resolved somehow.”
The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU implemented by BlueLink and the Environmental Rights Centre BELLONA (www.bellona.ru) in 2018-2019. The project was supported by the EU– Russia Civil Society Forum (www.eu-russia-csf.org) and its donors. The content of the article is the responsibility of its author; it may not reflect the donors’ point of view.
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