A cloud of dark metallic smoke filled the summer sky as Andrei Kozlovich talked to a compressor operator in an aluminium factory in Nadvoitsy, near the Finnish border. “To sue the factory we need a complainant,” Kozlovich shouted to Lyudmila Kuzina over the din of the machinery. “I want that person to be you.”
Kuzina had every reason to seek justice for she had seen up close the devastation the factory had caused to the region’s air and water. Each year the chimneys spewed 14,000 tonnes of pollution into the air, including zinc, cadmium, chrome and mercury. The factory’s workers died prematurely from respiratory and heart disease and cancer, there were nearly three times as many miscarriages as in a comparable nearby city, and more than 16 times as many birth defects.
Worst of all, the smiles of three of her children were gone. All had rotting, black teeth from fluorosis caused by the factory’s pollution of the city’s water. For 20 years, the apparatchiks who ran the plant had dumped fluoride-saturated steel rods into a nearby swamp. Rain and melting snow washed the fluoride into Nadvoitsy’s water supply, raising the concentration to ten times the tolerable maximum. At lower levels fluoride strengthens teeth and bones, but too much causes them to become brittle. Teeth darken, chip and decay, bones become malformed. Ninety-three per cent of the children who were 12 years of age in Nadvoitsy had teeth affected by fluorosis.
Kozlovich asked dozens of people to file suit, but many feared the factory management’s anger. he plant dominated this town of 14,000. To resist management was suicide. “I’m willing to try,” Kuzina said finally. Now we will see, Kozlovich thought.
Kozlovich researched the archives of the parliament and those of the environmental ministry. When Lyudmila’s husband Andrei was forced to stop working because of bone damage from fluorosis, he took her place as the plaintiff.
The suit sparked off a sensation. The judge also opened a criminal case against the factory for harm to Nadvoitsy’s children. Suddenly the local media was interested, and once apathetic citizens spoke up.
But rumours spread that the suit would close the factory. Townspeople and friends accused the Kuzinas of trying to profit from the case. On October 18, cracking under the harassment and his declining health, Andrei Kuzina hanged himself. His note to Kozlovich read, “Litigate without me. Do everything in my name.”
The suicide brought a wave of moral outrage against the factory in the town. Heartened, Lyudmila pushed on. The factory’s general director resigned, and finally the management responded, installing electrolysers to reduce the factory’s emissions. Nearly half the plant’s profit in a nine-month period was spent on reducing pollution. “We can produce aluminium without destroying the environment, or our children’s health,” Kozlovich says.
“This case is important because it shows Russians that they don’t have to be afraid to fight for their rights,” says Yelena Belozorova, coordinator of a national environmental organisation based in Moscow. “If Kozlovich wins, this case could be used to sue polluters all over Russia.”