Ufa Losing Battle Against Dioxins
Toxic waste accumulated from production various chemicals over 15 years ago still threatens the health of people in Ufa. The city is the capital of Bashkortostan – a federal republic located between Volga River and the Southern Urals of Russia. The rehabilitation of Ufakhimprom, the (now defunct) company responsible for the pollution, has trapped local citizens in what feels like a endless gloomy series for more than a decade.
A huge chemical plant on the northern outskirts of Ufa was built during the Second World War, when the Rubezhnoe Chemical Plant was evacuated here from the Ukraine. In the decades following the war, the plant grew into the Soviet Union’s largest producer of highly effective herbicides and polymeric materials. It manufactured over 40 different products in its glory days.
But in 2004, all Khimprom operations were terminated and soon the plant declared bankrupcy. Thanks to Ufa’s city administration, the abandoned land is now offered for rent and can even be purchased. The area is currently home to about 80 small businesses. Private entities produce and sell industrial and household chemicals and construction materials; there are even a children’s tailor shop and a sauna. An adjacent lot houses a dairy plant relocated there from central Ufa four years ago. There are also numerous private gardens selling their products to the general population. But toxic threats from the past still hang in the air.]
A toxic legacy
Apart from Khimprom, the northern outskirts of Ufa had three large oil refineries, a synthetic alcohol plant and a number of smaller petrochemical facilities. Together they hugely affected the city’s environment. During Soviet rule residents of Chernikovka, Ufa’s northern neighbourhood, frequently complained about poor air quality on the streets and in their apartments. Controlling authorities back then consistently reported pollution levels in the air and bodies of water above the maximum permissible limits. Doctors stated that the polluted air next to Khimprom was a crucial factor in the high incidence of various diseases among the local population.
In 1987 the state authorities’ decision to build a large polycarbonate plant on Khimprom grounds caused large-scale environmental protests in Ufa. At that time Mars Safarov, a prominent Ufa chemist, suggested for the fist time that emissions from Khimprom could contain dioxins–highly toxic substances with a strong potential for mutagenic, immunodepressant and carcinogenic properties
There had been small accidents at Khimprom during the Soviet era. But in the spring of 1990 a serious accident released phenol, a highly toxic substance, into Ufa’s water supply system. A chemical reaction with chlorine, used for water purification in Ufa water intakes, produced chlorophenol–an even more toxic substance. Prominent chemists from Moscow were called to Ufa to assess the accident’s scale and consequences. They presumed that the tap water could contain dioxins, and this was soon confirmed by civil defence officers via test samples taken from local rivers Ufimka and Shugurovka.
Over 670,000 people, from Ufa’s total population of 1,092,000, were affected by the toxins. Local authorities prohibited the residents from using tap water and delivered safe water throughout the neighbourhoods by truck. In his book Ufa at the Heel of Dioxins, Prof. Safarov cites estimates of dioxin concentration in the Ufimka River near the Southern Water Intake that were 147,000 times above the norm. At Khimprom grounds, it was 109,000 times above the norm.
A comprehensive investigation of the accident revealed previously classified data on the mass prevalence of diseases among Khimprom workers in the 1960s, when the plant there produced a highly effective herbicide branded 2,4,5-T (trichlorophenoxyacetic acid).
Former Khimprom workers say that 2,4,5-T was produced with a total ignorance of the resulting dioxin emissions. Untested workflows and processes frequently led to accidents such as equipment unsealing, and safety measures were primitive. For example, all intermediate chemicals were transported in liquid nitrogen, which led to extensive gas emissions into the work area. Operators had to use gas masks, changing filters a few times during their shift. Hardened viscous waste from production of the herbicide was manually cleaned from equipment with shovels. Using the most barbaric method, workers wearing no protective gear manually raked it out of pressure chambers, stacked it into metal barrels and then dumped it right into Shugurovka River, a tributary of Ufimka River where the Southern Water Intake of Ufa is located.
Nikolai Churilov, 85, a retired chemical plant worker, now living in Ufa, recalls: “The production technology was poor, untested. Safety measures were primitive; nobody knew about the dioxins. There was a constant unpleasant smell, but we didn’t care much; it was tolerable, all right at the time. The workshop floor was scattered with butyl splashes solidified like flatbread; we just washed them out with water, not caring about the vapours. The installations often became clogged with the product; instructions prescribed to clean them with special agents, steam them out. But, due to the constant rush, we just cleaned them manually.”
The primitive technology used by the plant produced huge amounts of the most toxic of all dioxins–2,3,7,8-TCDD (tetrachlorodibenzodioxin).
“The workshop had 220 workers, all of them young and healthy men; many came there right after their military service”, remembers Nikolai Churilov. “In just one year, almost all of them developed a very dangerous disease called chloracne. Furuncles appeared all across their bodies; no body part remained unharmed. After that, the city sanitary service banned operations in our work area. But no one of us was diagnosed with an industrial disease. Anyway, they had no special diagnostic equipment at that time.”
The victims were treated as soon as possible and then forgotten for decades. Authorities banned any mention of the mass poisoning–whether in special medical literature or in the general media. The case was only made public in 1990, together with the above-mentioned phenol accident.
Long term effects
“That was when we first learnt about dioxins and their presence here in Ufa”, states Prof. Lena Karamova, then the head of the Ufa Institute of Hygiene and Occupational Diseases (now called the Institute of Occupational Medicine and Human Ecology). “We researched some archived documents and learned the whole 1960s story of Khimprom’s experimental production of highly effective herbicides. We collected the victims’ medical records. Then we found 95 people who were still alive, invited them to our institute and offered them new treatment. We called them “the cohort”. Our research continued until 2006. First we just observed the victims, then we added their children and grandchildren to study the long-term effects of dioxin poisoning.”, Karamova said.
“In 1968, when I was thirty, I developed unilateral lacunar tonsillitis. Then I was diagnosed with myocarditis–cardiac muscle inflammation”, says Churilov. “And from there it started; diseases came one after the other. For four years, I felt worse than an elderly man. I was constantly out of breath; I couldn’t force my pace. I had to leave for work early to arrive in time. My health then recovered very slowly–it took me seven years of treatment. But cardiac arrhythmia is still there, much as I tried to get used to it.”
Karamova’s research shows that mortality rates from cancers, coronary heart disease, hypertension, cardiosclerosis and cerebrosclerosis among dioxin victims are much higher than in the general population.
“Chloracne is very difficult to treat, and its consequences are very serious”, Karamova explains. “Atherosclerosis and cancer rates in chloracne patients are significantly higher than in those who never had this disease. Almost all of these patients showed hypertension; they died from heart attacks at a younger age. Their children and grandchildren had the same diseases as their parents, with the same incidence.”
“Dioxins are the most toxic of all man-made substances”, confirms Prof. Mars Safarov. “It’s a diffused poison, with a lethal dose impossible to reach. You won’t die, but you’ll never live a good life.”
Lena Karamova and her team stopped observing the victims in 2006 due to lack of funding. The doctor recalls that regional authorities increasingly hinted to them that it was “time to forget about the dioxin issue and never push it again”.
There is only fragmentary research data that can directly relate disease prevalence and mortality rates in Ufa to dioxin exposure. However, Prof. Safarov compared general mortality rates from heart diseases and cancers in Ufa and Bashkortostan to those of Khimprom workers. He obtained the following data: From 1962 to 1999, one person out of 1,000 died from cancer in Bashkortostan, two in Ufa, and 58 out of the workers from Khimprom. In the same period, five people out of 1,000 died from heart diseases in Ufa, compared to 42 of the Khimprom workers.
According to other data provided by Safarov, the cancer rate in Bashkortostan was 180 for 100,000 people in 1990; today it has reached 467 for 100,000.
“The figure grew threefold in 30 years, and the growth will continue. In 20-30 years, mortality rates in the general population will reach Khimprom levels”, claims the professor.
Safarov’s confidence is based on the simple fact that the dump sites for highly toxic substances at Khimprom are still not sealed from the environment. Episodic research data (Bashkortostan Ministry of Environment reports that the research was stopped in 2016) show that all buildings and all soil on the former Khimprom grounds are still polluted with dioxins in high concentrations. Especially dangerous are eight sludge reservoirs that officially contain about 540,000 cubic meters of chemical waste extremely rich in dioxins.
“These sludge reservoirs are just pits with no waterproofing, no site preparation. They contain enormous amounts of dioxins. These pits currently are Ufa’s greatest problem, as the dioxins spread into the groundwater and then reach the Shugurovka and Ufimka river basins. Consider the following: Two kilogrammes of dioxin is the maximum permissible dose for the whole Ufa population; three kilogrammes could poison the entire city. Meanwhile, just 20 years ago, according to the Republic of Bashkortostan’s Dioxin Report, Khimprom grounds contained two tons of dioxins. About half of this quantity has already dispersed into the air, water and dust, with the city greatly affected”, says Safarov.
Waiting for rehabilitation
Since the mid-2000s, authorities have repeatedly declared that they are preparing a land reclamation project for Khimprom grounds. The stated reclamation costs grew continuously, but work never started due to lack of funds. For example, in 2013 the project cost was estimated as four billion roubles, which was already allocated in the federal target program Remediation of Cumulative Environmental Damage, 2014–2025. However, the program was never approved and the reclamation project prepared by regional authorities was heavily criticised by the local scientific community.
“The project costs 90 million roubles, but it’s just useless”, states Safarov. “It was proposed to demolish the buildings and then chop them into gravel for road construction. Sludge from the reservoirs was to be burned into cement for residential construction. It’s a very dangerous project. Remember that dioxins decompose very slowly.”
“Recent proceedings on the issue brought the news that this year Bashkortostan will again receive no funds for reclamation of any facilities”, complains Alexander Veselov, head of the Bashkortostan Environmental Union. “The republic’s ministry for the environment claims that they failed to apply in time. This story repeats every year. And that’s not all. When the reclamation project was first prepared, Life Safety Institute, subordinate to the ministry, intentionally designated Khimprom waste as Class 4, the lowest class of hazard, while dioxins are globally designated as Class 1.”
The greatest danger to the city
A year ago, Ufa mayor Irek Yalalov acknowledged Khimprom as “the greatest danger to the city” and promised to “plan an urgent investigation about the presence of dioxins around the facility”. However, the mayor was soon dismissed, together with the regional president and environmental minister. All reclamation plans were again put on hold.
Only in April 2019 did the environmental prosecutor’s office for the Republic of Bashkortostan legally bound the Ufa city administration to carry out a complete inspection of Khimprom grounds and restrict their commercial use.
Safarov reminded those involved that the Seveso dioxin accident of 1976 forced Italian authorities to remove and bury contaminated soil from 18 square kilometres of land. “I also suggested building a so-called ‘Safarov Sarcophagus’ to isolate the toxic waste on-site. To enclose the whole 150-hectare Khimprom grounds with a concrete girder footing to the depth of the groundwater, i.e., 10–12 meters. This is the only feasible means of reclamation, as it’s impossible to recycle that huge mass of soil”, says Safarov.
In late April, Bashkortostan media reported that the Ufa city administration signed a contract for 25 million roubles for the remediation of the cumulative environmental damage at Khimprom. The winning bidder, Razmah GP LLC from Saint Petersburg, claimed that their final objective was to reclaim Ufakhimprom grounds and remove the eight sludge reservoirs. The waste is to be partially recycled and partially buried on a certified landfill outside the city limits. The project is awaiting sanitary examination and public hearings.
The article was prepared under the project Quality Journalism for Environmental Activists in Russia and the EU and 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 and may not reflect the donors’ point of view.
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