Wastes of War: Russia's Forgotten Chemical Weapons
May 23, 2014
David Hoffman / Washington Post Foreign Service
In a verdant pine forest, sprinkled with birch trees, the lush growth suddenly disappears. Underbrush gives way to a black ulcer on the earth. In the clearing nothing grows, not even grass. This hole in the middle of a Russian forest is an uncharted chemical weapons graveyard. Buried here are vintage World War II aerial bombs, filled with a mixture of deadly lewisite, a blistering poison gas, and yperite, a sulfur mustard gas.
LEONIDOVKA, Russia (August 16, 1998) -- In a verdant pine forest here, sprinkled with birch trees, the lush growth suddenly disappears. Underbrush gives way to a black ulcer on the earth. In the clearing nothing grows, not even grass.
Vladimir Pankratov, a gray-haired former Soviet military man who is now an environmentalist, kicked at the ground on the edge of the dark clearing in the woods. He kicked again and again. He poked a stick into the soil -- and pried up the nose cone of an aerial bomb.
This hole in the middle of a Russian forest is an uncharted chemical weapons graveyard. Buried here are vintage World War II aerial bombs, filled with a mixture of deadly lewisite, a blistering poison gas, and yperite, a sulfur mustard gas.
These abandoned bombs are a visible symbol of Russia's chemical weapons nightmare: It has more chemical bombs than any country, and it cannot get rid of them, or even find them all. Forty thousand tons of chemical weapons are stored in officially declared military depots. But thousands of other bombs lie in abandoned and uncharted weapons dumps, like this one. The Russian military, which created these undeclared dumps decades ago, still denies they exist.
Entombed in the forest here by Soviet soldiers in the early 1960s and then forgotten, the bombs are coming back to haunt the environment of today's Russia. Preliminary tests by a team of experts working with Pankratov have found heavy concentrations of arsenic in the soil. Lewisite is 36 percent arsenic. The black, sandy scars on the forest floor give off a powerful metallic odor.
Moreover, the poison is spreading in an area where hundreds of thousands of people live. Water and soil tests by Pankratov's team show that arsenic is turning up in higher concentrations than normal 2½ miles away in bottom sediments of tributaries to the Sursk Reservoir.
The reservoir provides drinking water to Penza, the nearby provincial capital, with a population of 530,000. Penza, 350 miles southeast of Moscow, is located in the rich black-earth farming belt of southern Russia, part of the Volga River basin, which itself was home to much of the Soviet chemical warfare industry.
Arsenic is extremely toxic. In acute poisoning, violent stomach and intestinal inflammation and bleeding lead to massive losses of fluid and bodily salts, causing collapse, shock and death. Long-term low-level exposure can lead to other ailments, including cancer.
Not on any map, protected only by one distant sign warning people to keep out, the chemical weapons graveyard is a small glimpse of what is becoming a painful torment for Russia -- the legacy of chemical and nuclear weapons production during the Cold War.
Across Russia's vast steppes and Siberian taiga, and into the seas from the Baltic to the Pacific, the Soviet Union and later Russia have dumped, buried, spilled and exploded chemical and nuclear substances that had only one purpose -- to kill people. They were the ingredients or byproducts of weapons of mass destruction. They were the wastes of the Cold War. Now, they continue to damage the land and people.
Although the Soviet Union has collapsed, a full accounting of the contamination it loosed on the environment has never been made. For most of the Cold War, the Soviet Union kept the sources of this pollution -- the arsenals and bomb factories -- shielded by the strictest secrecy.
Little is known even now about the clandestine dumping and destruction of chemical weapons and radioactive materials. Moreover, little is being done about it, despite the health risks. In some cases, Russian authorities simply deny a threat exists and continue to stamp the files "top secret."
"This place has been abandoned," said Pankratov, surveying the chemical weapons graveyard, which lies less than a mile from one of the declared depots where nerve gas is stored. "No one is responsible for it. This information about old destruction sites hasn't been opened, it's still classified, and we are talking about it now because we have to face the obvious -- we are talking about a dangerous contamination of the soil."
The contamination may become an enormous economic burden to a country already flat on its back. Russia simply cannot afford to clean up the poisons left behind by 50 years of dumping and discharge by the military and its bombmaking industry. The pollution is a potential health time bomb, causing an increased incidence of cancer and disease for which no one wants to take responsibility, especially the beleaguered Russian military.
After an initial surge of citizen activism at the end of the Soviet period, Russians today are more focused on economic survival, sometimes desperately. "People are indifferent," said Vladimir Verzhbovsky, a journalist in Penza, not far from the chemical weapons dump. "Those who try and arouse public opinion are treated as clowns and not taken seriously. Life is so hard. Salaries haven't been paid, in some cases for years. And people think, how are they going to feed the children? People are aware they are living on a powder keg. But their current interests are different."
The Powder Keg
The small rural village of Leonidovka sits at a crossroads of two huge problems, both inherited from the Soviet era.
One is that Russia has the world's largest supply of chemical weapons, which it promised by treaty to liquidate but now cannot afford to destroy.
The other problem is that, before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, tons of chemical weapons were discarded by the military and forgotten, and they are now an ecological threat. No one knows where they are, or how much of the deadly poisons are leaching into the air, water and soil.
Leonidovka is near one of the uncharted chemical weapons dumps, hidden in the nearby forest. The village also sits next to a walled military base that is an official depot for thousands of tons of the still-active chemical bombs.
Russia has formally declared it holds about 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. The stockpile consists of 32,200 tons of nerve gases -- sarin, soman and VX, and 7700 tons of lewisite, mustard gas and their mixtures. They are stored in seven depots, including Leonidovka.
Behind the arsenal's high walls here are 15 million pounds of VX, sarin and soman gases packed into aviation bombs.
These are known as nerve agents because they attack the nervous system after inhalation or contact with the skin. They can kill within minutes at very low doses. The agent sarin was used in the Aum Supreme Truth cult's 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 people and injured 5,500.
At Leonidovka alone, there is more than enough nerve gas, if distributed by individual doses, to wipe out every human on Earth.
Almost all of the villagers have worked in the arsenal. Maria Zavyalova, 72, recalled that in the 1950s she tended bombs there. "We were given gas masks," she said. "It was hot in the summer. We were told not to gather mushrooms and berries in the woods, that it was all poison."
Eventually, the bombs may be destroyed at a new facility here, but there are no plans for cleaning up the abandoned dump. Residents are uneasy. "People feel concerned, there is no denying it," said Irina Molchanova, 33, a deputy school principal. She asked a visitor, "Do you think we are living on a powder keg?"
Russia has promised to liquidate the declared arsenal of 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. It signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993 and ratified it in 1996. The treaty, which took effect last year, calls for abolishing the development, production, stockpiling and transfer of chemical weapons and outlaws their use. Most experts agree that Russia's aging stocks have outlived any military utility.
Under the treaty, Russia and other nations agreed to destroy the weapons over 10 to 15 years. The United States already has begun destroying its stockpile of 32,000 tons of chemical weapons at two sites and is expected to finish by 2004 at a cost of about $13 billion.
But Russia's government is chronically short of cash, and the military establishment is collapsing for lack of money. Gen. Stanislav Petrov, commander of Russia's radiation, chemical and biological defense troops, said in an interview that Russia needs $5.5 billion to liquidate the chemical weapons. But in the last two years, he said, the government delivered only 2 or 3 percent of what was budgeted for the program, which is falling behind schedule.
"I cannot express a lot of enthusiasm here on how the state is financing this program," he said.
The United States has provided as much as $194 million to help Russia launch the technology and design for a nerve agent disposal facility in southern Siberia, and Germany and the Netherlands are making contributions, but the totals are just a fraction of what Russia will need.
"There is no way Russia can fulfill the convention," said Sergei Baranovsky, executive director of Green Cross Russia, an environmental group that has worked closely with the government. "Russia is left alone. It needs the help of the West."
"This is a global problem, and the world has to participate in overcoming it," said Valery Petrosyan, a chemistry professor at Moscow State University. "People cannot say that just because Russia synthesized this 50 years ago, so they must destroy it themselves. It has to be destroyed. The world must help Russia destroy it."
The Soviet military had commissioned a plant in the city of Chapayevsk, in the Volga region, for destroying chemical weapons, but protests from citizens stymied the project before it ever went into full-scale operation. As a result, President Boris Yeltsin decided in 1992 that the chemical weapons should be destroyed in the seven cities where they are now stored.
Of the stockpile, 17.2 percent is at Leonidovka, in the Penza region; 13.6 percent at Shchuchye, in the Kurgan region; 18.8 percent at Pochep, in Bryansk; 17.4 percent at Maradykovsky, in Kirov; and 14.2 percent at Kizner, in Udmurtia.
These five locations hold nerve agents, packed inside shells and munitions. But at two other places -- Gorny, in the Saratov region, and Kambarka, in Udmurtia -- older chemical weapons, such as lewisite and sulfur mustard gas, are stored in giant vats, some nearly 50 years old.
While publicly declaring the size of the stockpile, Russia and the Soviet Union have never accounted for bombs that were secretly dumped and destroyed in earlier years, many of which are decaying in unmarked graveyards like the one in the woods outside Leonidovka.
Lev Fedorov, an activist who is president of the Union of Chemical Safety, a citizens' network, has estimated that the Soviet authorities dumped half a million tons of chemical weapons in three periods between the end of World War II and the late 1980s.
Many were sunk at sea in 12 locations in the Baltic Sea, the Kara Sea and the Sea of Japan. They included Soviet-made weapons and those captured from Nazi Germany. Tens of thousands of tons also were buried in unmarked and still undisclosed graveyards around the Soviet Union, according to Fedorov.
Fedorov said the final wave of dumping and burying came in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union tried to reduce the size of its huge arsenal to something approximating the U.S. stockpile. The Chemical Weapons Convention only partially covers abandoned chemical weapons, those discarded after the mid-1970s.
At Leonidovka, the abandoned munitions dump is just a few hundred yards outside the walls of the military arsenal. Pankratov said the burial ground was used in the early 1960s to dispose of World War II Soviet aviation bombs, containing lewisite and yperite. These first-generation weapons were considered obsolete and were replaced by nerve agents, which are still in the arsenal.
"It's no secret that chemical weapons were destroyed at all arsenals by methods that they knew at that time, and these toxic substances have spread," said Pankratov, who once worked in the Soviet military's chemical weapons troops and later helped with the cleanup of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. Now, he is the volunteer head of the Penza chapter of Green Cross.
Pankratov is overseeing experts who have taken soil samples at the abandoned dump as part of a Green Cross project.
"The results are dismaying," he said. "On the place where the weapons were destroyed, there are excessive amounts of arsenic." The tests found high concentrations of arsenic buried from six feet to 16 feet deep, he said.
The average concentration of arsenic was 30 grams per kilogram of soil, or 15,000 times greater than the permissible concentration of 2 milligrams per kilo by Russian standards, according to a report Pankratov has written for Green Cross. The original lewisite has dissipated, but studies have shown that arsenic compounds can remain in the soil for dozens of years.
Even more worrisome is the proximity of the dump to the Sursk Reservoir. Tests on the bottom sediments of tributaries to the reservoir have found the arsenic concentration is 20 milligrams per kilo, or about 10 times the permissible level, Pankratov said. So far, the findings have not been made public. No research has been done on the possible health effects.
Pankratov said no one will even admit to being responsible for the dump.
Petrov, the general in charge of chemical weapons, said that a search of military archives found "insufficient information" to locate such dumps. He also said they are "not our priority target." He added, "I think this problem does not exist for us. The burials in the ground were nothing at all on Russian territory."
Pressed about the site at Leonidovka, Petrov said perhaps the weapons were left by retreating German troops in World War II. But German troops never advanced as far as Leonidovka during the war. Then Petrov said perhaps the location was a bog. He said the military might send specialists to look at the site.
"We haven't found anything in the archives about Leonidovka, nothing at all," he said. "Our arsenal is there. We own this arsenal, and we know what is kept where."
Secrecy and Fear
During World War II, the small town of Gorny in the Saratov region mined oil shale for the war effort. When the mines were depleted on the bleak steppe, 500 miles southeast of Moscow, a secret warehouse was opened. The storehouse is still there -- filled with the oldest of Russia's chemical weapons. It holds 225 tons of lewisite, 690 tons of mustard gas and 210 tons of mixtures. Most of the toxic materials are contained in steel vats with walls less than half an inch thick, which hold 60 tons each.
Petrov said these vats, filled in 1953, are the most risky and should be the first to be destroyed.
For most of the last half-century, Gorny residents had no idea what was in the warehouse. But in the Gorbachev era of the late '80s, they found out.
Gorny is an impoverished town in an economically depressed corner of Russia. The water supply is unfiltered. Lenin's statue stands forlornly in the central square. On the outskirts of the town, at the chemical weapons base, the first destruction facility is being built, with the help of German financing. But the German aid is only for destroying the weapons -- the plight of the people in Gorny is Russia's problem, and Russia is broke.
Tatyana Grozdova, deputy director of a regional children's hospital in Saratov, carried out a series of screenings in 1994 and 1995 of 595 children in Gorny and neighboring villages. She found that the closer the children lived to the chemical weapons base, the greater was the incidence of illness. She said the sicknesses most often found were skin diseases and disorders of the urinary system and digestive organs.
But she acknowledged the research was incomplete. She lacked money for sophisticated tests, and the military has never provided any information about possible leaks or dumping of toxic chemicals from the base. "We have to trust our officials that all is good and wonderful," she said, "but we do not have a clear system of protection of civilians."
Lydia Budanova, a doctor in Gorny, said, "Of course, we think the factory might have some effect on children, but as for concrete facts, we can't connect it. We cannot deal with it at our local level. We don't have the right equipment; we don't have toxicologists."
Petrov, the military commander, dismissed reports of health problems as "inventions."
On the main street, the sense of distrust and despair is palatable. Many people said they were afraid even to talk openly about the chemical base for fear of losing their jobs. Although demonstrations were held several years ago, now people are more worried about economic survival.
"All of us feel negative about it," said Nadezhda Andreeva, 48, a former lawyer now working as a grocery clerk. "The information is meager, and people do not understand what is happening, what's in store for us. People do not know the consequences.
"I understand the hopelessness of people," she added. "They are happy to have anything. They are not thinking about our future. I think people understand with their brain -- but finding work is necessary. Survival depends on it."
Svetlana Bryadikhina, 25, said, "We are digging a grave for ourselves. All this science, it is no use what they say to us. We want to leave very badly, but we don't have the means."
Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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