By Marie Jégo
27 November 2012
(Guardian Weekly) – At Tegul'det (population 3,000), a village in the south-east corner of Tomsk oblast, it takes a lot to upset the residents, busy hunting, fishing and preening their vegetable patches, except during the six long winter months, when their only distraction is cutting holes in the ice on the river and fishing.
Nothing really bothers Alexei, a retired FSB (former KGB secret police) major. Not even the mound of earth that looms just next to his home. Yet 20 tonnes of DDT are buried there, between the settlement and the river Chulym.
In the 1970s, when no one lived here, the local authorities thought that Tegul'det was an ideal spot to bury unwanted pesticide. DDT was produced in large quantities in the 1950s and 60s, until growing awareness of the hazards led to a ban on further use.
This left the question of what was to be done with the huge stockpile that had accumulated. Burying the stuff was cheap and easy. Furthermore Siberia was big. Tomsk oblast alone (316,000 sq km) is almost as large as the whole of Germany. The woodland, with its peat bogs and oil reserves, was sparsely populated.
Time passed and several families settled near the Tegul'det mound. It was an attractive spot, close to the river and not far from the main village. The newcomers built little wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, each with an adjoining plot of land for growing potatoes and cabbages.
That was when the trouble started. "People started complaining of headaches and sickness. Something had to be done. So the local authorities shipped in sand to make a thicker layer over the buried pesticides. The vegetable gardens were moved a bit further away. The residents stopped complaining but we have to admit that the land and river are contaminated," says Piotr Chernogrivov, head of the Green party in Tomsk oblast.
Still, "the villagers are in good health", contends Gennady Zavilevich, an official with the Emergency Control Ministry. A pollution and radiation specialist, he is also a keen naturalist, and is determined to "leave clean land" to his descendants, as he explains when he proposes a toast at a social gathering in the bear-hunt cabin near the village.
Tegul'det is far from being an isolated case. All over the former Soviet Union, nearly 250,000 tonnes of pesticides and farm chemicals have been stored in ramshackle warehouses, land-filled or dumped. After the USSR splintered the authorities lost the thread, so no one knows exactly where this toxic waste is.
Chernogrivov fears such dumps may be a bigger hazard than even nuclear waste because of the confusion surrounding them. France dispatches regular consignments of depleted uranium for processing at Severesk (formerly Tomsk-7), a closed military complex near Tomsk, but this circuit is under control. The same is not true of pesticides.
Chernogrivov advocates collecting toxic agricultural substances at the "pilot polygon", of which he is the deputy head. It occupies 38 hectares of land near Tomsk. Two-thirds of the land is owned by the Russian state, which provides funding. Since 1992, waste has been stored here in secure buildings, monitored by Chernogrivov. The centre also accepts waste from surrounding oblasts: Kemerovo, Omsk and Tyva. […]