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Pollution Grips Russian Port City

Residents seek technical help to clean up poisoned environment, worry over radiation threat

THE waterfront starts to attract more and more people as this port city in northern Russia emerges from the depths of winter and the days grow longer.

The port remains icebound in March and dock facilities operate at a snail's pace, with ice-breakers opening the way for the occasional ship that sails into the harbor. Most of the time the Northern Dvina River is the exclusive domain of the city's 430,000 residents. Hundreds of people each day enjoy cross-country skiing atop the three-foot thick ice, while others motor around in makeshift snowmobiles - motorcycles with sidecars and skis fixed to the wheels.

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In the old days, the river's beaches continued to attract people once the ice melted and the city began to bask in the summer's midnight sun.

But no longer. Industrial pollution has so poisoned the river that swimming in it is considered a health hazard.

"We have a wonderful river, but in the summer it's impossible to swim," says Yelena Baburova, an activist with an environmental and antinuclear organization called Russian North. "The ecological situation here is among the worst in Russia." Paper mill menace

In addition to being a major port, Archangel is one of the biggest centers of Russia's timber industry. The region's abundant paper mills pose the biggest ecological threat to the area, Ms. Baburova says. Lining the banks of the Northern Dvina, the mills spill harmful chemicals into the water and belch toxic smoke into the air. The combined air and water pollution has devastated the White Sea as well as the river and has threatened drinking water supplies.

"It doesn't look like a living sea," Joshua Handler, an activist with Greenpeace, said after completing a fact-finding mission to Archangel recently.

Though the mills do the most harm to the environment, many Archangel residents say it is radiation that worries them the most.

"It's something that is always in your head," says pensioner Vladislav Antropov. "I am concerned most about young people's future."

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A major nuclear submarine base is located in the nearby city of Severodvinsk. In addition, residents fear the effects of fallout from Novaya Zemlya, an island that was used as a testing ground for nuclear weapons by the Soviet Army. Located in Arctic waters, Novaya Zemlya is part of the Archangel region, a territory roughly the size of France.

"Just a few years ago almost nobody knew of the existence of a nuclear testing site in our region," Baburova says. "The revelation was very frightening to them."

Concern is so great that hanging above an entrance to the Archangel city hall is a radiation meter to provide the latest Roentgen ray count for all to see. Lately, the readings have been well within healthy limits, says Alexander Kondraskul, a local historian.

Allegations made in late February that the Soviet Navy used waters off of Novaya Zemlya as a nuclear dumping ground will likely exacerbate the radiation fears. Russian nuclear experts interviewed by Britain's Independent Television News claimed 17,000 nuclear waste containers were dropped in the Kara Sea over a 20-year period. Up to 15 reactors from decommissioned nuclear subs were also dumped, according to Mr. Handler, the Greenpeace activist.

Adm. Vitaly Zaitsev of the Russian navy calls the dumping charges "absurd," but admits low-level waste had been discarded in the area as recently as 1985. Admiral Zaitsev also says some reactors were buried off Novaya Zemlya, but insisted they posed no threat.

"The nuclear fuel has long ago been removed and processed," Zaitsev told the Itar-Tass news agency. "Within several decades, they'll become absolutely safe."

But Handler, for one, is skeptical: "Do I trust the authorities based on what I've seen? The answer is no. They have to be more forthcoming with information," he says. More studies must be performed before an accurate picture emerges of the potential for disaster and its possible consequences, he adds.

The question of dumping on Novaya Zemlya aside, the cost of cleaning up the pollution in and around Archangel will be enormous. At the same time the city is desperately short of money.

"I can't really blame them," Baburova says of city officials' failure to launch a cleanup effort. "We have so many problems that we can't solve them all at once. We don't even have enough food or medicine here."

Cooperation with other countries is likely the key to the city's ecological cleanup, Handler said. Archangel receives food aid from several countries, including Norway, Germany, and the United States. But city officials say what is needed most is technology. Renovating factories

"If you consider the future, the best way to help our city develop is through investment and technology," said Alexander Ivanov, chairman of the city council. Renovating the city's factories could go a long way toward reducing the level of air and water pollution.

"The top priority of any internal or external investment should be to clean up the paper mills," Handler says, adding that the plants badly need scrubbers to filter toxins coming out of their smokestacks. Norway, meanwhile, is considering a technical assistance program aimed at improving forestry and agriculture.

If new technologies and techniques are adopted, the people here could start enjoying cleaner air and water in about 10 years. But the pollution may never be cleaned up completely, Handler says. "It's time to stop talking and start doing something."

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