• U.S.

Environment: Uneasy Flows the Dniester

3 minute read

A major spill brings a harsh rebuke from Soviet authorities

Although the Soviets have tough environmental laws on the books, they are all too often ignored by bureaucrats eager to meet economic goals. Reports trickling out of Moscow indicate that there is still widespread poaching, uncontrolled mining, and contamination of air and water, including continued spillage of industrial wastes into Siberia’s aquatic jewel, Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world.

Not surprisingly, the Soviets rarely launder this dirty linen in public. Now a change seems to be in the air. The officially controlled press has acknowledged, in almost painful detail, an environmental calamity that seriously polluted one of the U.S.S.R.’s major rivers: the Dniester, which is a vital source of fresh water for the rich agricultural lands of the southwestern Ukraine and the small Moldavian Soviet Republic.

According to an account given by Nikolai Vasilyev, minister of land reclamation and water resources, the mishap occurred in September, when a 45-ft. by 80-ft. breach opened in a large earthen dam at a fertilizer plant in Stebnik, four miles southeast of the city of Drogobych, near the Polish and Czechoslovak borders. The break allowed a 20-ft.-high torrent of concentrated salty wastes from the plant to cascade down hillsides, sweeping away railroad tracks, ripping up roads, ruining farmlands, and smashing homes and workshops until it reached the Dniester River 15 miles away.

There were no casualties, Vasilyev told an interviewer for Izvestiya, because workers spotted dangerous splitting in the dam and managed to evacuate the immediately threatened area in tune. Nonetheless, he conceded that the accident had serious environmental consequences. Nearly 6 million cu. yds. of thick brine spilled into the Dniester, spreading pollution almost all the way to the Black Sea port of Odessa, 360 miles to the southeast.

Normally the purest river in the European part of the Soviet Union, the Dniester became “brinier than the saltiest sea water,” in Vasilyev’s words. Containing as much as 10 oz. of salt for every quart, the burning brew killed some 2,000 tons of fish, destroyed an unknown quantity of aquatic plant life on which fish thrive, and forced officials to cut off water temporarily to numerous communities that depend on the Dniester, including the major cities of Odessa and Kishinev. To make up for the lost water, officials scurried to drill wells and divert streams and lakes.

The spill has created an enormous cleanup problem. Millions of tons of salt settled to the bottom of a large reservoir behind the Novodnestrovsk Dam, 300 miles downriver from the accident. Vasilyev said, however, that the salt was gradually being flushed out by mixing it with fresh water, so that the river might be restored to its old purity in a few months. Still, even if the effort is completely successful, there may be long-term repercussions, political as well as environmental. Vasilyev bluntly accused officials, presumably those in charge of designing and managing the potash plant, of ignoring two warnings from inspectors who had demanded improvements in the dam. Criminal charges, he said, had been brought against eight culprits. Implicit in this public reprimand (which follows official reports of bureaucratic bungling in the recent trapping of 40 Soviet ships in the Arctic ice) is a clear warning: the Kremlin will not continue to tolerate the blatant disregard of laws involving the environment or public safety.

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