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Clawing Metals in Siberia’s Frozen Land

Norilsk Nickel’s company anthem praises its smelters as “the light in Russia’s window,” but even in summer the Arctic city sits wreathed in a gray cloud of pollution.

<font face="Arial" size="2">This city of 200,000 started life in 1935 as one of Stalin’s gulag slave labor camps, which exploited </font><font face="Arial" size="2">tens of thousands of supposed enemies of the state.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s original work force was shipped here by prison barge. The unlucky zeks, as they were called, </font><font face="Arial" size="2">found themselves 300 kilometers above the Arctic Circle, where temperatures can drop to nearly minus 50 </font><font face="Arial" size="2">degrees Celsius.</font> 

<font face="Arial" size="2">The city is home today to the biggest source of nickel and palladium in the world. A closed city in </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Soviet days, Norilsk still does not welcome casual visitors: Foreigners who show up uninvited are put </font><font face="Arial" size="2">on the next plane out.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk is also one of the most polluted cities on earth. The towering smokestacks of its three nickel </font><font face="Arial" size="2">and copper smelters pumped 1.8 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the air over the city last year. </font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">That is three times the total emissions from Britain for the same period. Dust from the plants is laden </font><font face="Arial" size="2">with cancer-causing metal particles.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">It’s hard to tell where the factories end and the city begins, as the smoking pools of industrial </font><font face="Arial" size="2">water, pylons and steaming pipes that snake around the smelters give way to streets lined with shabby </font><font face="Arial" size="2">apartment blocks. Buildings sit 1.5 meters off the ground on steel beams because foundations would </font><font face="Arial" size="2">conduct heat and melt the permafrost, causing them to sink.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk has a hard time holding on to its youth. Sergei Romashkin, 21, will soon finish his university </font><font face="Arial" size="2">studies and dreams of working in computer design in Moscow, half a continent away.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">“I don’t want to spend my whole life here,” he said. “There’s no greenery in the town, the trees don’t </font><font face="Arial" size="2">grow properly. There aren’t trees, just sticks.”</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s chief product is nickel, a key ingredient in stainless steel. To extract it, workers at the </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Taimyr mine, one of seven belonging to Norilsk Nickel, descend over a kilometer underground into 150 </font><font face="Arial" size="2">kilometers of tunnels.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Deep beneath the Talnakh mountains, they drill and blast out the ores. Amid the thundering roar of </font><font face="Arial" size="2">machinery, the rocks are crushed and milled into a powder. The powder is mixed in giant vats, where </font><font face="Arial" size="2">chemicals are added to bring a gray foam of nickel concentrate to the top, which is then shipped to </font><font face="Arial" size="2">Norilsk’s three nickel and copper smelters.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">Workers are dwarfed by the converter furnaces. Ninety-ton cauldrons of molten nickel and copper matte </font><font face="Arial" size="2">swing overhead. Liquid copper and nickel is poured into panel-shaped molds, then dipped in acid baths </font><font face="Arial" size="2">and further refined using electrolysis. The rich slime that forms at the bottom of the electrolysis </font><font face="Arial" size="2">baths is gathered up, and from these dregs, Norilsk reclaims palladium and platinum as well as zinc, </font><font face="Arial" size="2">cobalt and lead.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Workers get nearly three months off each year due to the harsh conditions, and salaries are good. Wages </font><font face="Arial" size="2">rose 40 percent in April; now the average salary is $1,500 per month — three times the national </font><font face="Arial" size="2">average.</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Vladimir Bekker, chief engineer at the Nickel Plant, the oldest of the three factories, says Norilsk is </font><font face="Arial" size="2">very different now than in the 1930s.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">“Every age has its tasks,” he said. “Back then it was the gulag, it wasn’t about keeping people alive. </font><font face="Arial" size="2">... The goal was to produce metal, to win the war, then to rebuild the country after the destruction. </font><font face="Arial" size="2">It wasn’t about people.”</font>

<font face="Arial" size="2">Now, he said, the company is trying to address the environmental challenges and the health and safety </font><font face="Arial" size="2">of its workers.</font>

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<font face="Arial" size="2">“Of course we know what still needs to be done. And there isn’t enough money for some things despite </font><font face="Arial" size="2">the factory’s riches,” he said. “We are taking small steps, but we’re not standing still.”</font>

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