The Spread of Poisons
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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