Eye witness

April 30, 1999

Lax industrial safety practices are a dire legacy for the countries of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In the remote Siberian town of Uysol Sibirskoe, the Chemprom chemical plant is being dismantled. Dust from the methyl mercury process used until last November litters the floor, mixed with rust, ashes and grime.

Yuri Udodov, of Irkutsk's Vinogradov Institute of Geochemistry, headed the regional arm of the state ecology committee that got a local court to order the closure of Chemprom's methyl mercury cathode production plant and caustic soda chlorine process.

Kingston University has teamed up with the institute and Irkutsk State Technical University to develop training courses in geochemical cycles and the migration of toxic substances. The programme is backed by the British Know-How Fund.

"The scale of the task at Chemprom is sobering," said Dr Udodov, who was forced to retire as head of the ecology committee after the court case sparked a political backlash. "Our investigations show that over the past 28 years the plant used 3,200 tonnes of mercury. More than 1,100 tonnes were lost. We need to find a way to clean up what has been lost into the soil, air and water."

Fred Fifield of the Centre for Earth and Environmental Science Research at Kingston University, who has been involved in joint pollution and epidemiology programmes in the region since 1993, said: "Preliminary work demonstrated substantial and widespread mercury pollution at worryingly high levels. Mercury is clearly entering the local food chains to humans...

"By any yardstick this must be viewed as a major problem that has international as well as local implications."

The scientists are learning how to track and contain the spread of mercury poisoning, already evident in samples taken at the Bratsk reservoir hundreds of kilometres to the north.

Pavel Koval of the Geochemical Institute said: "Our main goal in working with Kingston is to improve our analytical facilities and share our experience to improve training for environmental managers. We need to better understand the mode of migration of mercury."

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