In Siberia, Toxic Black Snow Reveals the Toll of Coal Mining

Authorities in one town reportedly attempted to cover up coal-polluted snow with white paint

Coal-colored snow has blanketed Siberia's Kuzbass region this winter, provoking local outrage and health concerns Courtesy of nataseife/Typical Kemerovo via the Siberian Times

This winter, toxic black snow—polluted by open-air coal pits—blanketed Siberia’s Kuzbass region's trees, buildings and roads, creating a series of surreal scenes across Kuzbass’ coal mining towns, as Marc Bennetts reports for the Guardian.

“It’s harder to find white snow than black snow,” Vladimir Slivyak, a member of the Ecodefense environmental action group, tells the Guardian. “...There is a lot of coal dust in the air all the time. When snow falls, it just becomes visible. You can’t see it the rest of the year, but it is still there.”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Kuzbass’ coalfield stretches across 10,000 square miles, making it one of the largest in the world. A 2015 report published by Ecodefense stated that 59 percent of all Russian coal was mined in the region, which then hosted 120 coal mining facilities and 52 enrichment plants. In the same report, Ecodefense noted Kuzbass' 2.6 million residents have an average life expectancy three to four years lower than Russia’s national average. In addition to lower life expectancy, they also exhibit heightened incidences of tuberculosis, childhood cerebral palsy and 15 types of cancer.

This snow season, locals living in the coal mining cities of Prokopyevsk, Kiselyovsk and Leninsk-Kuznetsky have relied on social media to share photographs of the eerie winter landscape. One image reposted by the Siberian Times features blackened icicles dangling off of snow-covered branches, while another spotlights a playful sculpture whose appearance belies the ecological toll of Kuzbass’ snowfall. As Bennetts writes for the Guardian, a separate video filmed in Kiselyovsk reveals piles of coal-colored snow covering a children’s playground and the courtyards of several residential buildings.

Anatoly Volkov, director of the Prokopyevskaya coal plant, offered a potential explanation for the snow in an interview with Russian state TV, saying a shield” designed to prevent coal dust from scattering throughout the air had malfunctioned. According to the Associated Press, Volkov also stated that some emissions are bound to escape.

“We can’t tackle coal dust in the streets,” Volkov explained.

The Siberian Times reports that the region’s deputy governor, Andrei Panov, is set to meet with local environmentalists to discuss the issue further. Although Panov acknowledged the probable consequences of the Prokopyevskaya plant’s shield failure, he suggested that multiple factors—namely coal boilers, car exhaust fumes and Kuzbass’ other coal-burning plants—were likely at play.

Coal dust contains dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, the Guardian notes. When coal is loaded onto open train cars for export, wind and rain exacerbate the problem, picking up harmful dust and depositing it across nearby towns and rivers. Crucially, environmental activists argue that authorities in the Siberian region often overlook safety regulations, allowing open-air pits to lie directly adjacent to surrounding villages.

Writing for Motherboard, Sarah Emerson points out that coal plants worldwide are major contributors to climate change. Toxins found in coal dust have been known to trigger asthma and inflammation, as well as health issues including lung cancer, stroke and respiratory disease.

As the AP reports, regional governor Sergey Tsivilyov told state TV that authorities have previously attempted to thwart the negative effects of coal pollution. Certain mines have also pledged to resettle residents living in highly polluted areas.

Still, such promises are underscored by attempts to hide, rather than actively combat, the consequences of coal mining. In December 2018, the Moscow Times reported that authorities in the Kuzbass town of Mysky had simply covered up black snow with white paint. A video published by local media showed a woman reaching out to touch a pile of snow and pulling back with her hands covered in paint residue. (The town’s leader later apologized for the incident and ordered the paint’s removal.)

For now, many locals are turning to social media to voice their frustrations. One individual described Kuzbass as “just a place for extracting resources” and then accused authorities of ignoring “living conditions [and] culture.” Another, according to the Siberian Times, wrote, “No cleansing systems, all the waste, dust and dirt, coal lay in the area.”

“Our children and us are breathing it [in],” the user concluded. “It's just a nightmare.”

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