The first thing that anyone coming to the settlement of Nadvoitsy (Karelia) encounters … is a strong, throat-burning odor of nitrogen sulfide on the street. But the odor penetrates railroad cars about 20 minutes before Nadvoitsy, when the train passes by the Segezha Pulp and Paper Combine. Most residents of Nadvoitsy consider this “aroma” to be someone else’s. But they classify as their own the emissions from an equally large industrial giant located on the outskirts of the settlement — the Nadvoitsy Aluminum Plant (NAP), … which turned out its first aluminum in 1954. Year went by, the Khrushclev spring faded, and the unforgettable stagnation had crushed the country and begun to want when strange things began to happen in the settlement near the NAP, which in no way stood out among other enterprises. The teeth of children born there rapidly turned black and decayed. The local polyclinic had no time to put in fillings, but it couldn’t have changed anything: The permanent teeth that came in to replace the baby teeth began to decay immediately, and by the age of 16 to 18 Nadvoitsy’s young people were mumbling like real oldsters. The stricken teeth were just the most noticeable manifestation of trouble, not the only one. Among people a little older, an increased incidence of joint ailments appeared, and chronic hepatitis became a commonplace disease — its symptoms were registered even among five-month-old babies. Back then, the concept of “ecological illness” had not become established in the newspapers, and until the mid-1980s all these problems remained a personal matter for the sick people themselves and the physicians treating them.
Although the settlement’s residents guessed the connection between their ailments and the plant’s operations, it was not accepted practice to talk out loud about this. The situation changed only when perestroika and glasnost were proclaimed. Ecology was virtually the first topic whose problems were allowed to be discussed openly, and the Nadvoitsy Aluminum Plant quickly found itself at the center of the greens’ attention. An inspection by the greens produced a shocking result that explained everything at once: In the drinking water used by the settlement, the concentration of fluorine was a hundred times higher than all permissible norms, and the people living there had essentially been drinking a weak solution of it for years. The plant’s sewer pipes terminated in a swamp feeding a river from which, in turn, water for the settlement’s water-supply system was taken. Fluorine is known to take the calcium out of bones, so that was the clue to the decaying teeth of Nadvoitsy’s children….
A furor erupted, and Karelia’s Segezha District, where Nadvoitsy is located, was declared an ecological disaster zone. Under pressure from the public, the combine’s second unit was equipped with purification facilities, and the waste-dumping site was fenced off from the swamp by a dike of sand. The water’s fluorine content was successfully reduced; however, this did not eliminate all the ecological problems.
The air was polluted as much as the water, and it has been much more difficult to solve this problem. In 1993 alone, the Nadvoitsy Aluminum Plant discharged into the atmosphere 10,000 [metric] tons of contaminants, a large part of which was fluorine…. Although, for the sake of fairness, it must be said that the NAP’s share of the gray cloud over Nadvoitsy is by no means the largest. The Segezha Pulp and Paper Combine, located 20 kilometers from the settlement, puts over 100 tons of pollutants into the atmosphere every day….
With the passage of time, the crater of the ecological volcano on which Nadvoitsy lives might have been, if not extinguished, then at least rendered harmless, but the economic crisis intervened. The problems of ecology in Nadvoitsy, as everywhere, were replaced by the theme of sheer economic survival, and today the small settlement, almost the entire adult population of which works at the NAP or associated production facilities, is literally praying for its plant. Its 3,000 workers, who every day breathe in the musty smell and take their children to the dentist, nevertheless believe that they are lucky, and they do not want to leave for anywhere else: Earnings at the NAP are above average….
The NAP provides sustenance not only for its own workers but for the entire settlement. The secondary school has computers that the plant bought, ailing teeth are treated at the local polyclinic with state-of-the-art equipment, and in January 1992, when a strike of teachers and doctors swept Karelia, Nadvoitsy’s schools and hospital personnel did not join it. The plant allocated 5 million rubles each for the schools and hospitals. Is there any need to say that in this situation, many people regard black teeth and pain in one’s joints as inevitable payment for material well-being, and that the smoke from the plant’s stacks is perceived not as a sign of trouble but of hope? As long as it is there, life in the settlement will go on. By the will of fate and the current economic situation, the plant, whose emissions have turned a 100-meter belt of the surrounding taiga into a lifeless zone of dead trees, has proved to be one of the most profitable in Karelia. The aluminum produced there, which brings in cherished hard currency, … goes to many countries of the world. By no means the largest enterprise in the republic, it provides 18% of the budget receipts for all of Karelia….
In general, the small and, by Moscow standards, quite remote Nadvoitsy is a mirror image of the situation in Russia today, as the ecological slogans that rang out a few years ago have fallen silent when confronted with harsh economic reality…. The 9 billion rubles that the plant sent to Petrozavodsk last year made it possible to maintain a large part of Karelia’s social infrastructure….
In any case, the residents of Nadvoitsy do not consider their settlement to be the worst place in the former Union. Before coming here, many residents worked for a while at the metallurgical combines in Bratsk and Irkutsk, and in comparison with those places they quite sincerely regard Karelia as a health resort…. Nadvoitsy girls marry local boys (they know that poor heredity or a smoking habit is not to blame for the stumps of blackened teeth), and from childhood they develop the habit of automatically covering their mouths with one hand when they smile…. The 10,000-plus residents of Nadvoitsy live under the canopy of the plant that has become their guardian angel and evil genius. They make up only 0.0005% of the 25 million people in Russia who live in ecological disaster zones.