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#12 - JRL 7179
Time Europe
May 19, 2003
Poisoned Waters
The lakes of the Chelyabinsk region are swirling with nuclear waste. So why are people still eating the fish? A case study in Russian dysfunction

The road from Chelyabinsk to Kasli is straight, well-paved and stippled with radiation signs nailed to the slender birches along the roadside. The signs warn visitors that "mushrooming, gathering berries and herbs and fishing" are banned. But one kilometer outside Kasli, 120 km north of Chelyabinsk, a pink-cheeked roadside vendor is illegally selling freshly caught carp from the trunk of a battered Zhiguli sedan. As is so often the case in modern-day Russia, no one is exactly sure what the law is and it is frequently ignored anyway. What is certain is that the fish, said to be caught in nearby Lake Shablish, is practically bristling with contaminants.

Ecologist Nikolai Shchur buys one, but not to eat. An exhaustive radiation test, carried out by the Federal Agricultural Radiology Center in Chelyabinsk, registers 314 becquerels per kg of strontium-90 in its bones more than three times the permissible level set by the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants, and enough to increase the risk of leukemia or bone cancer. The head of a pike, caught the same day in nearby Lake Alabuga, contains 152 becquerels per kg, 1.5 times the permissible level.

Welcome to the Chelyabinsk region, home of Mayak, the world's largest nuclear facility. Some 1,550 km east of Moscow, the area was once the backbone of the Russian defense industry and is still one of the most polluted areas in the country. According to the region's oncology center, Chelyabinsk has the highest cancer rates in the Urals and the 14th highest of Russia's 89 regions. The number of terminal cases has grown by 53% over the past several years, while cancer among women is 30% higher than elsewhere in the country. The Kasli district averages 397 cancer cases per 100,000 inhabitants; the nationwide average is 302. Infant mortality in Kasli is 24 per 100,000, almost twice Russia's average of 13.

"No statistics exist on how much eating fish from radioactively polluted lakes has contributed to these high cancer and mortality rates, but the fish hardly improve people's health," says Shchur, 49, editor of the independent human rights bulletin Otkrytaya Pozitsiya (Open Attitude) and leader of Chelyabinsk's Regional Ecology Foundation. "Selling it for food is cynical and criminal." In April, the Ministry for Natural Resources and the State Control Department for the Urals federal district of Russia sent inspection teams to the region to investigate Shchur's claims.

Chelyabinsk's contaminated fish became public knowledge in the summer of 1999, forcing local authorities to ban sales from the polluted lakes. But the ban was lifted two years later, after further tests showed the fish were clean. Shchur wants the polluted lakes completely closed to fishing, otherwise "more tons of radioactive fish will hit the markets," he says.

Shchur is no stranger to controversy. Back in 1994, as head of the state-run ecological lab in Snezhinsk, he exposed numerous cases of pollution in the town, including poisoned land on which a day-care center was built. Municipal authorities responded with allegations that Shchur misused some $180 of the lab's funds. In December 1994, he was put under pretrial arrest. In jail, he used his time to write Survival in the Justice System, a pamphlet on how to stand up to investigators and wardens and how to survive in prison. "Nothing has changed in Russia," he wrote. "Prison is the place to realize that." He later received a suspended sentence.

Mayak, a massive nuclear facility and the prime source of the Soviet Union's weapons-grade plutonium, now reprocesses spent nuclear fuel. Between 1948 and the mid-1980s, Mayak dumped over 120 million curies of radioactive waste into Lake Karachai, located within Mayak's perimeter some 70 km north of Chelyabinsk. According to the Moscow-based Russian branch of Greenpeace, Mayak still dumps some 20,000 cu m of liquid radioactive waste into the lake every year. Mayak admits to dumping, but has pledged to stop the practice by 2011. Russia's nuclear safety agency, Gosatomnadzor, said last January that 18 accidents, some of which discharged radioactive substances into the environment, had taken place at Mayak over the past 10 years, further contaminating local produce, including fish.

The region surrounding Chelyabinsk has a long history of being poisoned and then allegedly "cleaned up." In 1961, Soviet authorities launched an ambitious renewal effort. As a result, the government decreed that 82% of the territories were now safely reclaimed for agricultural production. Closed lakes were gradually reopened for fishing, the region's essential food industry. "In terms of radiation danger to the populace, [it] is not an issue anymore," says Vladimir Kostyuchenko, head of the Environmental Department of the Urals Research Center for Radiation Medicine. Shchur disagrees. "They claim the area is safe, because strontium-90's half-life is 28 years and now almost 50 years have passed," he says. "But it's the same as claiming that you had 100 kg of cyanide buried in your soil, and now you're safe, because you have only 50 kg left."

For the past decade, Shchur has been warning that decrepit nuclear facilities like Mayak still pose a danger. He argues that the almost 50-year-old dams that separate radioactive waste dumps from the Techa River are shabby and could collapse, unleashing a new catastrophe. Local officials agree that the dams are a problem, but say they can't be fixed without help from the federal government. And Shchur warns that his readings indicate that waste from Lake Karachai is still trickling down into the local community's potable water supplies. But what most irks the regional authorities is Shchur's bitter four-year fight against the sale and consumption of radioactive fish.

Shchur claims that some corrupt officials permit this sale in exchange for kickbacks from funds allotted to private entrepreneurs under the Federal Area Rehabilitation Program, designed to reclaim agricultural lands and fish-rich lakes from the polluted sites. "Some officials grant entrepreneurs fishing rights through graft rather than open tender," says Victor Chernobrovin, deputy chair of the Chelyabinsk Regional Legislature. Shchur particularly decries fishing in Lake Alabuga near Kasli because these fish were once consumed by people in the town's orphanage, hospitals and day-care centers.

Tests carried out in 1999 showed that the meat of Alabuga perch contained almost two times the maximum permissible concentration of strontium-90. In 2000, Deputy Governor Gennady Podtesov commissioned the St. Petersburg-based Federal Radiological Center (frc) to run new tests. The frc reported that "strontium-90 was present in edible parts of the tested fish," but concluded that "the Alabuga fish are fit for consumption and breeding." At that point all restrictions on the Alabuga fish were lifted. "We were all terrified when we learned that they sold us fish from Alabuga," says a middle-aged Kasli resident who identified herself only as Elena. A local physician, who asked not to be identified, says fish from Lake Alabuga are still used in soup or minced to make fish balls and dumplings. "It's a crime what they're doing," he says.

Some regional officials counter that Shchur is pursuing vested interests of his own. Sergei Sophyin, section head of the Chelyabinsk Regional Radiation Safety Department, explains that local authorities transferred fishing rights for Alabuga from the Kasli town fishery to another fishery on nearby Lake Arakul, so that the outfit now has the right to fish both lakes. "Shchur protests only because he co-owns the Kasli fishery," claims Sophyin. Shchur denies that. "I'm on the Kasli fishery's board of directors," he explains, "but I don't draw any salary, or share profits. I'm there just to advise on ecology."

Due to radiation pollution, Soviet and later Russian authorities ruled that fish from Lake Alabuga could only be used as animal feed, specially processed and treated to reduce the radionuclide content. But in 1997, Chelyabinsk Governor Petr Sumin turned the lake over to the Arakul fishery, which sublet it to Russian entrepreneur Victor Mochalin. In June 1998, Chelyabinsk Deputy Governor Podtesov confirmed that Mochalin was to breed pelyad, a local white-fish species, in Alabuga to repopulate the region's other clean lakes. But in the same official document, Podtesov reconfirmed the ban on using Alabuga fish for human consumption. "It's really puzzling how the same lake can be closed for fishing because of pollution but used to breed fish to repopulate clean lakes," says Tamara Shubina, editor of Krasnoye Znamya, Kasli district's daily.

Shchur worries he will never be able to stop the sale of contaminated fish. Prosecutors are now investigating his work for the Kasli fishery, he notes glumly, hoping to prove he has illicit financial interests there. "They won't find anything because there is nothing to find," Shchur says. But he also recalls that before he was imprisoned last time, Alexander Sidorov, the deputy chief engineer at the Russian Institute for Technical Physics, warned that they would find "witnesses" to testify against him unless he shut up. "They might as well find such 'witnesses' now," Shchur says, because he's determined to keep angling for trouble until people in the Chelyabinsk region are no longer eating radioactive fish.

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