The land of black snow


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — The first thing that struck Dr Yelena Shomina about Anzhero-Sudzhensk was that the snow was black.

A geographer, she was in the Kuzbass region — Western Siberia's "Ruhr Valley" — early in December to attend a conference on environmental problems in industrial districts. From the provincial capital of Kemerovo, she had travelled to Anzhero-Sudzhensk, a city of 100,000 people and one of the oldest coal-mining centres in the Kuzbass, to interview local officials.

What she found illustrates the environmental dilemmas faced by the people of the USSR's heavy industrial zones. The mines and related industries in Anzhero-Sudzhensk are antiquated and require state subsidies to stay in operation.

Under the "500-day" economic plan adopted by the government of the Russian federation, subsidies are to be cut and outmoded producers shut down. The citizens of Anzhero-Sudzhensk know that what is disfiguring the snow is also being deposited in their lungs. But with their town's future desperately uncertain, can environmental considerations be a priority?

Participants in the December conference heard of a similar dilemma that has preoccupied the citizens of Kemerovo itself. The fourth battery of the coke ovens at the Kemerovo Coke and Chemical Works is a notorious polluter. But surplus coke from the ovens is exported, and half of the foreign currency earnings are used to fund the social programs of the city — at present, to the tune of US$16 million a year.

A concerted campaign by environmentalists in Kemerovo has brought a promise that the offending battery will be shut down in three years. But will the price of cleaner air be the decay of the city's preschools and health clinics?

River pollution

The keenest environmental controversies in the Kuzbass concern the region's main waterway, the river Tom. The struggle to end pollution of the Tom has provided a unifying thread for one of the USSR's strongest regional environmental movements.

The first impulse for organisation around environmental issues in the Kuzbass came from the Communist Youth League, or Komsomol. In May 1988, Komsomol leaders in Kemerovo organised a teach-in on the environment, centred on the slogan "For a clean sky!"

In September 1988, the organisation Noosphere was set up. Originally consisting mainly of technical specialists, Noosphere carried out energetic educational work and soon developed a strong cadre of tertiary and secondary students.

Collaboration with the local television station proved a big plus. Numerous articles were also contributed to the local press.

Before long, Noosphere was helping to build a major campaign against the construction of a dam on the river Tom, a fight which the environmentalists eventually won. The problems afflicting the stream of a regional Citizens Committee to Save the Tom River. This body currently has 220 activists in vatious cities.

The environmental movement in the Kuzbass did not remain aloof when the region became the focus of the miners' strike of mid-1989. Extensive links were built up with the miners' Working Committees, and these organisations have continued to support the environmental cause.

During 1990, Noosphere and the Tom Committee put much of their energy into "ecologising" the political process. As well as forcing election hopefuls to state their positions on environmental issues, the movement has also endorsed its own candidates. One of the leaders of Noosphere, who is also a scientific consultant to the miners' Working Committees, has been elected a people's deputy of the USSR. At present 11 deputies to various legislative bodies are members of the Tom Committee.

Other developments during 1990 included the formation in June of the Union of Ecologists of the Kuzbass. This is a professional organisation based around specialists of Kemerovo-Kuzbass Coal, the largest mining combine in the region. One of the main aims of the Union of Ecologists is to give practical help to enterprises in limiting damage to the environment.

Last year also a section of the environmental movement in the Kuzbass attempted to systematise its views into a distinct "Green politics". Various leaders of the Tom Committee are now members of a new Green Party.

Informal deal

For all its strengths, the environmental movement in the Kuzbass has yet to make much impact on Anzhero-Sudzhensk — the town where the economic and ecological crises of the region have taken their most intractable forms. Talking with officials there, Shomina found them in no doubt that local enterprises were grossly in breach of environmental legislation. Nevertheless, the enterprises were not being prosecuted.

The major employers in Anzhero-Sudzhensk are already uneconomic, and the cost of cleaning up their production would quite probably strain their finances beyond breaking point. The city soviet is reluctant to see the enterprises fined, since heavy fines could well have the same effect. At the very least, the fines would largely wipe out profits, and hence slash the revenues which the city receives from taxes.

Consequently, an informal deal has been worked out. The city threatens to apply the environment protection laws. In order to avoid this, the enterprises make "voluntary" donations to city programs. The workers keep their jobs, at least for the moment, and social provisions do not deteriorate too catastrophically.

But in a grim metaphor for the future of the Soviet environment in the epoch of privatisation and the market, the snow stays black.