Long-closed plant threatens people and environment in Buryatia
August 11, 2022
  • Anna Zueva
  • Vladimir Popov
Anna Zueva covers the dangerous environmental situation in the city of Zakamensk on the border between Russia and Mongolia. Twenty-five years after the city-forming enterprise to extract tungsten and molybdenum was closed, 45 mln tons of waste still lie in the city.
The way to Zakamensk – a six-hour drive from the capital of Buryatia – is exhausting. The road isn’t always paved and safe. A couple of years ago, residents of the area asked me to do a report on dilapidated bridges over the Dzhida and Khamney rivers. The report came out, but the bridges, built 50 years ago, haven’t been fixed. Ten thousand residents of Zakamensk, located on the border with Mongolia, continue to risk their lives to reach Ulan-Ude.
Zakamensk is a young city with low-rise buildings. On the central square there is a monument to Lenin, a house of culture and a district administration building. There are hundreds of such cities in Russia, but Zakamensk is unique. In 1932, geologists found tungsten and molybdenum there. The Soviet defense industry was in dire need of nonferrous metals, and the government decided to launch an enterprise to mine them. The Zakamensky Local History Museum has a permanent exhibition on the creation of the Dzhida Tungsten-Molybdenum Plant. Guide Lyudmila Kornakova explains how geologist Maria Besova carried out the field work and how the first people lived back then:
Maria Vasilievna Besova graduated from the Leningrad Mining Institute and was sent to Irkutsk. From there she was sent to Zakamna to search for tungsten and molybdenum. At that time there was no city here, only wild taiga. But there is almost the entire periodic table, mineral wealth in the ground. In the summer of 1932, on July 9, a quartz vein with huge wolframite crystals was uncovered.
In 1934, they began to build a plant in Zakamensk and simultaneously a city – houses for workers, roads, a school, a bathhouse, shops. Prisoners of the Dzhida Correctional Labor Camp were used to build urban infrastructure and extract tungsten. Meanwhile, in 1943 about 200 Volga Germans were forcibly brought to Zakamensk. Among them was Mechthild Goppe, who was mobilized into the so-called labor army.
I was born in 1926 in the Kukkus district, the village of Yost (now nonexistent, it was located on the territory of what is now Samara Region – AZ). I’m 95 years old. In 1943, in February, we were mobilized into the labor army. We ended up in the village of Nizhnyaya Gudzhirka, in a mine. I was 14, and I ended up at a logging site, Goppe says, fiddling with an old photograph. It’s her big family – she was separated from them during the war.
What did you feel? I ask carefully.
What could I feel? At that time, in those years, I didn’t think about anything anymore. You had to do it and you did it! You need to live, you need to eat, you need to earn money. Wherever they tell you, that’s where you go! There was a principle: if you can’t do something, we'll teach you how, but if you don't want to, we'll force you. We lived in a column. The head of the column was a female lieutenant colonel. She made sure that every 10 days we rested and washed up. The disinfecting machine against lice was always in the courtyard. She made sure that all the food was cooked. We were fed three times a day. But the food was disgusting.
Besides the Germans – who were basically kept as prisoners because of their nationality – almost 1,500 Japanese prisoners were brought to Zakamensk in 1945. They worked at the concentrator, felled timber, built roads. Many of them died from tuberculosis, starvation or pneumonia.

After the end of the Great Patriotic War, Mechthild Goppe received a passport and was allowed to return to her homeland on the Volga. But she liked it in Zakamensk, and she decided to stay. She worked all her life in a greenhouse growing vegetables. For many years now, on May 9 she receives a postcard from President Vladimir Putin in which he thanks the pensioner for her selfless work and wishes her good health.
Thanks to Zakamensk tungsten, we managed to win the Great Patriotic War, says ex-mayor Vitaly Staritsyn. An alloy of tungsten and iron makes high-quality tool steel, which was necessary for the defense industry. It was used to manufacture tanks, planes, soldier's helmets, machine gun shields, shells and cannons. The armor of every third Soviet tank was made with a tungsten alloy from Zakamensk!
After the war, production rose rapidly. Beer, meat and dairy plants were built in the city. Specialists from all over the Soviet Union came to work in Zakamensk. People were given apartments, paid high wages, provided with food, recalls Lyubov Salisova, who began working at the plant as a process engineer in the 1980s:
I got a job at the Inkur-1 Plant. Ore with a tungsten content of 2-3% went there, when it left we were supposed to get it to around 60-63%. It was a concentrator. The living conditions in Zakamensk were excellent. There was nothing like it even in Ulan-Ude. There was sausage, delicious candy was brought in, there was fabulous omul fish, stew, condensed milk.
In the 1990s, the Dzhida Tungsten-Molybdenum Plant began to have problems with demand for its products. Some defense industry enterprises that had bought tungsten from the plant closed. Warehouses were filled with concentrate, but there were no buyers.
The content of tungsten in the ore began to decline because the rich veins had been used up. The ore became poorer, it got harder to mine it. Costs rose at the same time it became difficult to sell. In addition, the plant had actually been loss-making from the beginning, as useful by-products weren’t gotten. Only tungsten and molybdenum were extracted. But it was possible to extract silver and gold from the sulfide concentrate, which went into slag heaps and was simply dumped, says Evgeni Kislov, candidate of geological and mineralogical sciences.
In 1996, the Dzhida plant closed. Hundreds of specialists were left out of work and left Zakamensk for other cities.
A lot of apartments are empty, says Andrei German, who worked in the mine for many years. Some couldn’t sell them and abandoned them – there was no reason not to. It was really hard for everyone who lived here. Men were forced to go somewhere far away from their families and work on a rotational basis.
In the early 1990s, the already-difficult socio-economic situation in Zakamensk was compounded by increasingly obvious ecological problems. The Dzhida plant had contaminated and continues to contaminate the water, soil and air. The main source of pollution is slag. Also called tailings, it represents a waste product from the concentrator.
"In total, 45 mln tons of slag was generated while the plant operated."
The tailings contain chemical elements of various hazard classes, including cadmium, lead, zinc and fluorine. Slag is still buried in the city.

Scientists from the Geological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences Siberian Branch, who have been studying the impact of the Dzhida plant on the environment for three decades, claim that Zakamensk and territory where the plant was is the most polluted part of the Baikal region.
Back in the late 1990s, when the plant closed, I began to study the oxidation of sulfide minerals there, as the city was littered with slag. It contained 3-4% of various sulfide minerals, explains Alexei Plyusnin, doctor of geological and mineralogical sciences. Sulfuric acid is formed when some sulfides are oxidized. It seriously affects the environment and has entered the rivers of the Zakamensk area.
In 1991-92, scientists discovered that nearly half the territory of Zakamensk was polluted and that the city was facing an emergency, while in 2004-05 already 80% was polluted by waste from the Dzhida plant. They wanted to officially declare the city an environmental disaster zone, but there wasn’t enough medical data to confirm the connection between the worsening health of residents and the tailings.
The soil has accumulated a huge amount of harmful substances – zinc, lead, arsenic and cadmium. These are elements of the first hazard class. Now they have begun hypergenesis, i.e. with oxidation these elements are swiftly changing forms, becoming more mobile, meaning they get into plants, plants are eaten by animals, from there they get into humans by way of milk and meat, notes Svetlana Doroshkevich, senior researcher at the Laboratory of Hydrogeology and Geoecology of the Russian Academy of Sciences Siberian Branch Geological Institute.
Besides the slag, the environment has been polluted by mine, adit, quarry and waste-site waters that go into the Gudzhirka and Inkur streams and the Zapad adits. In summer 2019, the Modonkul River, which flows through Zakamensk, turned bright orange. Samples taken by health inspectors showed contamination with harmful substances, especially cadmium and manganese, caused by the abandoned Zapad adit, which had belonged to the Kholtoson mine of the Dzhida Tungsten-Molybdenum Plant. Now the color of the Modonkul’s water has returned to normal, but the fish have long disappeared. A year ago, another river in Zakamensk, the Mergen Shono, saw its usual color change and turn milky.
There used to be a lot of fish, Andrei German says. Mine water runs. It spoils everything, the whole river... After it, nothing grows here. You see the tinge on the rocks! Mine water has no way out, so it comes out here. It gets into the Modonkul, which flows into the Dzhida, the Dzhida into the Selenga and the Selenga into Baikal.
In 2015, Buryat health inspectors turned to a federal research center that analyzes public health issues. Experts uncovered an unacceptable risk for local residents, finding that the occurrence of respiratory, digestive, endocrine and kidney diseases is associated with the long-time storage of waste from the Dzhida plant in close proximity to residential areas.

According to the Zakamensk central hospital, 985 people have died in the city over the past five years. Almost half – 437 people – were due to diseases of the circulatory system, followed by those of the digestive system and malignant tumors. During the same period (2017-21), cancerous tumors were detected in 110 Zakamensk residents. Scientists from Angarsk attribute these “crisis-level” rates to the unfavorable environmental situation.
I’m on disability, and there are many of us, says Andrei German. I have an occupational disease. I have silicosis. My lungs are clogged and hands beaten up. And in Zakamensk, many are suffering, and many young guys have left... I'm walking around now, but in two days I may not be here. I cough up coal dust, but not quartz dust…
In 1996, after the closure of the tungsten and molybdenum mining plant, the Buryat government decided to reclaim the land in Zakamensk. Not long before, Russia had passed a law on environmental protection that obliged the owners of mining enterprises to clean up polluted areas. However, the owner in Zakamensk declared bankruptcy, so all the costs of eliminating the accumulated environmental damage fell on the state. In 2005, a project was developed, and six years later, the first phase of the reclamation began.

At the same time, a new resource company emerged: Zakamensk JSC. In 2009, it received a license for the exploration and mining of minerals, including the use of waste from mining and related processing operations. It built its own concentrator in Zakamensk. It sits on a tailings dump in the Barun-Naryn area and is surrounded by 35 mln tons of slag. The company employs 200 people. Workers process the tailings and get a tungsten concentrate. The ultimate beneficiary was Federation Council Senator Akhmet Palankoev, a businessman and president of Akropol Group.

In 2011, Zakamensk JSC won an open tender for work to liquidate the accumulated environmental damage and received R500 mln from the state. Under the project, over 3 mln tons of slag from two large urban sites were to be removed and transported to the Barun-Naryn tailings dump, where in the Soviet years workers had exported contaminated slag.
The slag lay here... there were white heaps, more than a kilometer long. After our company completed the program, we now see a green landscape. Work was carried out here, the dirty slag was removed to the Barun-Naryn Valley and a fertile layer was brought in, recalls Sergei Spitsyn, chief geologist of Zakamensk JSC.
However, the reclamation carried out in 2011 didn’t solve Znamensk’s environmental problems. Another 2 mln tons of slag remained in the city. Chemical elements found in the tailings got into the soil and infected the plants. Treatment facilities at the Zapad and Sever adits were never built.
"Mine waters, which represent a weak solution of sulfuric acid, continued to pollute the Modonkul and Mergen Shono rivers."
Therefore, the Buryat Ministry of Natural Resources decided to develop a new project to eliminate the environmental consequences of the plant's activities. Gidrospetsstroy LLC from Chita won the tender.

In May 2014, the Chita company and the regional Ministry of Natural Resources signed a contract for R24.5 mln. Though the resulting project document didn’t go through a state environmental review (one reason was that the company didn’t include the construction of the treatment facilities in the documentation), then-minister Yuri Safyanov signed off on it. Fifteen mln rubles were transferred to Gidrospetsstroy.

The remaining R10 mln wasn’t received. A year after the contract was signed, the ministry terminated it. However, the measures to eliminate the environmental problems proposed by Gidrospetsstroy were still carried out by officials.

By 2017, Zakamensk JSC had removed a little over 5 mln tons of slag from the city, but this failed to solve the pollution problem.
The recultivation on the territory of the former bulk tailings dump was a joke, complains Svetlana Doroshkevich.They didn’t make a diversion ditch for storm water. And now erosion is taking place there. Many trees have been washed away.

There was a problem with the water, and it hasn’t gone anywhere. The reclamation didn’t include the water bodies. The adit water flows directly into the Inkur, Modonkul, Mergen Shono rivers. The situation with water has remained the same and even worsened, as the sulfides are oxidizing. It’s the main pollutant and constantly increases over time, according to Alexei Plyusnin.
This is how the reclamation in the monotown of Zakamensk failed twice. First in 2011, then in 2017. Combined, more than R3 bln from the federal and regional budgets, as well as extra-budgetary funds, was allocated. This money was received by Zakamensk JSC.

In 2018, the East Baikal Environmental Prosecutor's Office conducted an inspection in Zakamensk and found that the measures to eliminate the environmental consequences of the plant hadn’t been implemented. The Buryat natural resources minister was informed of violations of the law and instructed to correct them. Yuri Safyanov, the minister who had signed the contract for R25 mln with Gidrospetsstroy, resigned in May 2018 and went to work at Novatek, the largest natural gas producer in Russia.

All the ministers who have held the office after Safyanov – Vadim Kantor, Alexei Khandarkhaev, Sergei Matveev – also made no effort to improve the situation in the city.

In 2020, the prosecutor filed an administrative case against the Buryat regional government, claiming that its inaction was illegal, though this did nothing to address the environmental problems and didn’t put the plant on the state register of “objects of accumulated environmental damage.” A court ordered officials to complete all the work to eliminate the environmental damage by end-2022 and include the Dzhida plant in the state register.
We are really starting from scratch. I insist on new research because the old research has a certain time limit. We’ve prepared the terms of reference. I spoke with some planners in advance. It’s a difficult object. One planner won’t be enough, you need to assemble a group. And this increases the costs. The project alone will cost about R100 mln. And then there will be a battle over the financial resources, because for the region this is quite a serious amount, says Natalia Tumureeva, acting Buryat natural resources minister.
In 2015, Zakamensk was named a “City of Labor Valor and Glory.” That same year a tank monument was erected in the center of the city to honor home-front workers of the Dzhida Tungsten-Molybdenum Plant from the Great Patriotic War. Still, the socio-economic situation in Zakamensk remains deplorable. There is almost no work, residents move to Ulan-Ude or work on a rotational basis in the Russian North. Some continue to mine tungsten illegally and sell it at collection points.
Some adits aren’t closed, so people go there, sometimes for a week at a time. They live there and artisanal-mine wolframite. When they get 50 kg, they go up and deliver the wolframite. It’s illegal to sell and buy the metal like that, says Evgeni Kislov.
In 2007, seven people involved in illegal tungsten mining died from carbon monoxide poisoning at Kholtoson’s abandoned Razved mine. Pensioner Valentina Maksimova, who worked in a kindergarten all her life and now lives in a nursing home in Zakamensk, also lost her son in an adit. He went to the mine in the hope of making money.
It happened in 2015. He was crushed. He was 33 years old. I posed the question: why were the mines left open? How many of our children have died! Why do people go unemployed? Our boys and men go and mine! They should open a firm, then there wouldn’t be so many victims as now. Death to those bureaucrats! Maksimova cries.
But putting people to work mining tungsten in the adits of Zakamensk won’t work. The license for the development of the Kholtoson tungsten deposit is held by Tverdosplav CJSC, while the land under the Zapadnaya adit – an integral part of the deposit – belongs to Wolframine LLC. Neither company is developing anything or can be reached by the prosecutor's office or officials. Thus, the city of Labor Valor and Glory on the edges of Buryatia, one of the most polluted in Russia, looks doomed to oblivion. 
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