A TRIP down the Volga River can inspire both awe at its natural beauty and revulsion for its man-made pollution. High pollution levels can be found all along the river, but the situation on the lower Volga, especially in the Astrakhan region, is perhaps the most serious.
``On its way through Russia to the Caspian Sea, the Volga picks up pollution. As a result, Astrakhan has become a dumping ground for all of Russia,'' says Herman Mikhailov, deputy director of the Astrakhan Regional Committee on Ecology.
Industrial waste is the primary polluter, environmentalists say. During the rapid industrialization of the Soviet era, the Volga became a prime location for large-scale enterprises. And since communist planners cared only about output, little attention was given to environmental protection.
After decades of dumping, the environmental damage is reaching dangerous levels, Mr. Mikhailov says. Chrome levels in the river, for example, are 100 times above normal; cooper levels are 147 times above acceptable standards.
Fish and humans have suffered from the industrial waste, Mikhailov claims. An epidemic among sturgeon in the Astrakhan area in the late 1980s was caused by pollution, he says. And in Volgograd, environmentalists blame pollution for an AIDS-like disease found in children.
The environment started attracting official attention with the advent of former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. But so far government efforts have been ineffective, largely because they lack teeth. Fines for illegal dumping are so small that some factories prefer to pay them rather than to install expensive cleaning mechanisms, officials say.
In addition, Russia's economic collapse has hurt Volga cleanup efforts. Fearing massive unemployment, many Russians prefer to keep polluting plants going.
While public opinion may not be on their side, environmentalists have been able, after a long protest, to close down one polluting quarry, pending a health review. Ecologists say operations at Zhigulevsk Quarry on Mogutova Mountain pose a health hazard to the surrounding population, in addition to destroying the environment.
It is not too late to prevent irreparable damage to the Volga's ecosystem, says Jennifer Adibi, an environmental specialist based in Nizhny Novgorod for the Institute of Soviet-American Relations. ``The Volga isn't beyond repair,'' she says. ``The river can clean itself if it's given a chance.''