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The generals of copper are going to grow wheat in the world’s dirtiest city

The generals of copper are going to grow wheat in the world’s dirtiest city

01.07.2010 — Analysis

The city of Karabash, in the Chelyabinsk region, has suffered an environmental disaster. The town's primary employer (part of the privately-held Russian Copper Company) has released an enormous amount of sulfur dioxide gas into the atmosphere. This sulfur dioxide gas becomes an acid when mixed with water. The office of the environmental prosecutor has launched an investigation, but experts have no doubt that the company will receive only small fines. For several years now, the private company Karabashmed has with impunity been scalding the area's inhabitants and vegetation with sulfuric acid. As a columnist for RusBusinessNews has explained, the plant's managers have spent a lot of money to keep government officials in their pocket. 

UNESCO called Karabash the most polluted city in the world. The copper-smelting plant built here at the beginning of the 20th century has in recent years released more than 14 million tons of hazardous substances into the atmosphere, resulting in irreversible changes in the environment. The industrial complex came close to being shut down in the 1990's, but a shortage of raw materials forced the generals of copper to fire up its furnaces once again. The holding company Russian Copper Company (RCC) got control of the business in 2003 and promised fundamental improvements in the production process.

The new owner began reconstruction of the plant in 2004, immediately after a massive emission of sulfur dioxide gas had burned up all the trees in the city. The city's residents filed suit, and the prosecutor's office brought criminal charges against the chief engineer at Karabashmed. Aleksandr Khanin, Russian Copper Company's PR director, claimed that new equipment would be installed in 2005 and that this would solve the emissions problem.

RCC's website claims that about $120 million was invested in the technological and ecological revamping of Karabashmed's production process. Money was earmarked to purchase a modern water- and gas-purification system from the Swedish company Boliden Contech AB and also Wet gas Sulphuric Acid technology (WSA) from the Danish firm Haldor Topsoe AS, which would trap the sulfur dioxide gas and convert it into commercial-grade sulfuric acid. The plant's owner claims that by using state-of-the-art technical design, they solved Karabash's environmental problems and were able to build a "new, environmentally-friendly, European-type metallurgical plant with European safety standards. "

Nevertheless, 2007 saw yet another gas emission. The environmental prosecutor and Rostekhnadzor (the regulatory body responsible for ensuring compliance with all relevant legislation and technical standards) filed suit against Karabashmed in order to force the plant managers to meet their obligations. The company promised to carry out another reconstruction of the plant, and the case ended amicably. And then, in April of 2008, another gas emission. The environmental prosecutor filed a new suit, demanding a change in the plant's operations to prevent further pollution of the environment. In June, right in the middle of the court proceedings, the long-suffering earth was again doused with sulfuric acid. The governor of the Chelyabinsk region at that time, Petr Sumin, demanded an investigation and immediate action. Action was taken, but in June of 2010 a huge cloud covered the city. Witnesses testify that the gas was so thick that people suffocated in their own apartments. Gardens and trees were scorched, and residents could taste the sulfuric acid in their mouths.

The company's chief engineer, Igor Petrovich, declined a request to discuss the operation of their "modern gas-purification system" with a columnist for RusBusinessNews, "Put in a formal request and, if the director tells me to, I'll talk to you". Anatoly Ekimov, the environmental prosecutor for the Chelyabinsk region, clarified the situation for us, "Karabashmed's equipment can't produce blister copper under fully hermetic conditions, nor can it completely purify its gases. What they're doing at the plant is similar to smelting in an open crucible and, as a result, their existing gas-purification system not only isn't powerful enough to convert the sulfur dioxide gas into acid, it can't even trap all the emissions from the metallurgical production. " 

The local authorities are fully aware of the situation, but prefer to do nothing. The city doesn't even own any air-monitoring equipment. The price of this inactivity is also well-known.

In January of 2010, the Chelyabinsk regional court sentenced Sergei Kharin, a deputy of the Karabash municipal district, to five years in a maximum-security penal colony. In 2007, this elected "people's deputy" demanded that the city's environmental situation be examined at the parliamentary level and that the population be compensated for their injuries. Russian Copper Company thought it would be cheaper just to buy off this dynamic deputy. Kharin was offered money and asked not to take any steps to protect the environment, not to contact regulatory agencies, and in general, to turn a blind eye to the laws being broken by the copper-smelting company. The deputy agreed and the Karabashmed's assistant general director of social policy promised him 25,000 rubles a month.

The court found that Kharin had received 530,000 rubles for his compliance. It is likely that the payments would have continued, if the deputy had not demanded a raise of an additional 25,000 rubles per month. He was arrested and did not deny that he had taken money from RCC. What's more, during the trial Kharin claimed that other elected officials had also been bribed. Anna Murtazina, a former deputy in the municipal assembly, denies this. According to her, the deputies discussed environmental issues, passed resolutions, and wrote letters to Igor Altushkin, the owner of Russian Copper Company. Although Anna Murtazina doesn't recall that he ever responded. The environment did not improve and could not have improved. The managers of Russian Copper Company paid off the authorities from the very beginning, which prevented them from presenting a united front against the industrial policy that was killing the city. The managers then turned the corrupt officials in to law enforcement agencies, thereby ensuring the company's immunity from prosecution.

The prosecutor, Anatoly Ekimov, says that it won't be easy to hold the company's directors seriously accountable. This exciting criminal case from 2004 is in no sense over. The court of first instance found Karabashmed's former chief engineer, Victor Ermilov, guilty of causing an environmental disaster, but a higher court overturned that decision on a technicality. The litigation is ongoing. But there is yet no justice for the people of Karabash. After years of going to court, they have received 3,000 rubles apiece for the damage to their property and health - a travesty of justice.

Currently, the prosecutor is conducting an inspection of Karabashmed's regulatory documents and permits, and Anatoly Ekimov says that they might try to stop production at the plant. But experts doubt that that will happen. The former governor of the Chelyabinsk region, Petr Sumin, was for many years against taking that step. He allowed the company to violate the legally-established emissions standards, and the plant took advantage of this, emitting ten times the allowable level of hazardous gases into the atmosphere.

The position of the current regional governor, Mikhail Yurevich, will become clear in the near future. But experts claim he doesn't have much of a choice. The Russian government's working group on how to modernize towns built around one large, industrial employer got input from Petr Sumin and approved an investment plan to develop the city of Karabash. This plan proposes an increase in production at Russian Copper Company from 40,000 to 120,000 tons of copper per year. Those working on the program also want to develop tourism, the food industry, and agriculture in the region. It won't be easy for Governor Yurevich to deal with such a legacy, and, worst of all, maybe he doesn't even want to. The owners of Russian Copper Company regularly give money to fund the regional authorities' large-scale projects, which must surely be a source of delight to these officials.

Vladimir Terletsky

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