Cultures of Contamination: Volume 14


Table of contents

(28 chapters)

Sustainability is a catch term for the different way of life required to counter the ills of the modern era. It encompasses new social and economic as well as ecological relationships. Sustainability theory is, by its nature, hopeful in envisioning an alternative corrective course of action. This volume deals with “the negative legacy problem” that confounds this optimism because we have so profoundly contaminated and altered the earth in lasting ways. Any effort to create a sustainable future will have to deal with this legacy. It is a huge and profound burden faced unevenly by people and non-humans today and that we have left for future generations (see Edelstein, 2006).

What are the dynamics of a contaminated community – in Russia or the U.S.? These six diverse chapters chart what I have called “Environmental Turbulence,” the disrupted complacency of everyday life caused by accepting information about one's exposure to environmental contamination as fact. The Theory of Environmental Turbulence (Edelstein 2004) posits that normal social and institutional networks regularly fail to help toxic victims address their needs, forcing victims to band together in common response.

This paper is about some of my experiences as a sociologist, doing research at the Love Canal. The Love Canal remains an important story, because it aroused the consciousness of the world to the human and social consequences of environmental pollution. As an indication of continuing interest in that area, the 25th anniversary ceremonies at the site, early in August 2003, were well attended and publicized nationally by the mass media.

The 20th century was characterized by increased risk to both natural ecosystems and humanity due to the combined effect of fast industrial development and the increasing scarcity of natural resources. The former Soviet Union was one of the most polluted regions on earth. Within the country, it became necessary to delineate zones of recognized ecological disaster. This condition resulted from a policy that placed industrial development as the highest priority and the well-being of people and nature as the lowest. We created “industrial monsters” that rapidly consumed natural and human health alike. Beyond such well-known ecological disasters as the Aral Sea and the Bashkirian and Chernobyl disasters, other severe ecological problems screamed out across the nation for attention. No place was immune from such tragedy, even the relatively small town of Kirishi, Leningradskaya oblast, an hour's train ride north from St. Petersburg.

This chapter analyses conditions under which residents of a small Russian town accept the concepts “pollution” and “ecological risk.” The town in question is Sokol in the Vologda oblast of the Russian Federation, where there are two pulp and paper mills and other forest industries. Sokol is a typical small town with a population of about 40,000. The pulp and paper mills are locally run. The issues surrounding Sokol's pulp and paper mills generally present a typical Russian picture (Kuliasova & Kuliasov, 2002a, 2002b) with one major exception. Industrialization in Sokol goes back more than a century and thus reflects the broader history of the 20th century.

Local landfills in communities across the US are the battlegrounds in the conflict between our desire to consume goods at an extraordinary rate and our inability to deal with waste that is a by-product of this consumption. Despite efforts to reduce the amount of wastes generated through source reduction, in 2003, US residences, businesses, and institutions produced more than 236 million tons of municipal solid waste (trash and garbage), approximately 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day (EPA, 2003a). Also in 2003, 16,694 generators of regulated hazardous waste accounted for more than 30 million tons of hazardous wastes, more than half a pound of hazardous wastes per person per day (EPA, 2003b).

In this chapter we explore some of the intriguing questions raised by contaminated communities. Is there a connection between exposure to environmental hazards and psychological distress? If yes, how best can it be measured? What kinds of psychological problems are aggravated by this kind of life stress? How do we know that victims are truly experiencing increased problems such as anxiety, depression and fears about their health?

In 1990, testing revealed the existence of benzene in the municipal water supply of a community named Three Lakes, a residential subdivision of Houston, Texas. The water was quickly changed to a clean supply, but residents were not notified that there had been a problem until five months later. This provoked much anger within the community, along with concerns over present and future health problems. A grassroots group formed in response to this problem, but lasted only one year. The failure of this social movement organization left community residents to fend for themselves. In the words of one resident, the community reacted “like someone stepping on an anthill – everyone running in different directions.”

In a seminal essay, Mumford (1963) argued that society is forced to adapt to the demands of the technological systems it chooses. He distinguished between what he called “Authoritarian” and “Democratic” technics. Societies choosing the former path select technological and energy systems that are high risk and therefore demand authoritarian, centralized, secretive and closed social controls. In contrast, the second low-risk path allows for decentralized, open, participatory and democratic control. The two directions, and thus the resulting social forms, could not be more contradictory.1 Democratic technics, not Authoritarian, are necessary for a sustainable future.

Russia represents one of the world's most dangerous ecological risk zones. Yet, the risk is not evenly distributed within the country. Certain areas of Russia show a disproportionately heavy concentration of pollution and present an even higher ecological risk than the country as a whole. Making a major contribution to the list of areas at greatest risk are the “ZATO.” These unique “Closed Administrative Territorial Establishments” are Russian settlements or cities containing large nuclear enterprises; they are held in a state of extreme secrecy and security. Despite the end of the cold war, ZATO persist and their production activities continue to cause terrible damage to the environment and to the health of their residents. Additionally, the sites of closed former ZATO represent lasting ecological and health threats.

In this chapter we will look at some of the consequences of a sequence of nuclear disasters that occurred in the Southern Ural region of Russia beginning in the 1940s. Drawing upon the historical record, we document the steady increase in radiological contamination that resulted from a combination of accidents and a nuclear naivete that took nearly 60 years to outgrow. We will then analyze the dynamics of response to this contamination and health catastrophe. We will look at the population's reaction over the years, as well as the government's policy, or lack thereof, toward containing pollution, improving safety management, and protecting the health and environmental rights of the region's citizens. We will also compare the coping mechanisms of two different Russian cultures – that under the Soviet regime and that after perestroika – as a young democracy. Finally, we will examine the effects of social movements and community action, issues of community conflict, and the phenomenon of ecodisaster tourism.1

The Ural Mountain region is a remarkably beautiful landscape of forests and lakes. Here is the continental divide between Europe and Asia. One of the rivers originating here to eventually feed feeding the Artic Sea is the Techa river. But the verdant greenery that characterizes the region does not disclose the hidden dangers of plutonium and other radioactive materials either downstream or downwind of the Mayak Nuclear Complex. Major areas of the Techa river corridor and downwind areas were permanently evacuated after radioactive releases from the Mayak Nuclear Complex from the 1950s through the 1970s. Although acute and chronic water releases encompass this period, the so-called Kyshtim 57 accident, an air release from Mayak in 1957, was the word's worst nuclear accident until surpassed by Chernobyl (see Mironova et al. and Kutepova and Tsepilova, this volume). But what of the inhabitants who remain? In this chapter, we explore some of the psycho-social impacts of living in contaminated areas, drawing primarily upon interviews with residents of the region. In doing this, we give voice to their perspective and views on each other and life in this contaminated region.1

Personal life experience is not sufficient for an adequate environmental risk evaluation. People cannot understand environmental danger without having necessary information. Once established, however, environmental awareness has a direct influence on people's evaluations and, consequently, on their lifestyles (Sjoberg, 1996).

In both natural sciences and social sciences, there is relative agreement about the fact that the 20th century saw great diminishment of the earth's natural resources. In addition to dwindling materials and space for human activities, our industrial mode of natural resource consumption brought various ecological problems, including waste, and pollution of water, soil, and air.1 The specifics of any given social system influence an individual's perception of pollution of the surrounding environment and its consequences, and also influence the reaction of a society in general to ecological problems. In other words, different societies develop different collective and individual strategies for coping with problematic situations related to “technogenic” pollution of the environment. This article, based as it is on an in-depth case study, analyzes the peculiar relationship of people to ecological issues in Russian society. Research was carried out in the city Dzerzhinsk, which, throughout the Soviet period, was proudly called the “Capital of Soviet Chemistry.” This city is thus a demonstrable example of the Soviet period, and the history of the city will serve as a lens through which we will analyze contemporary ecological problems of the city and the relations of its citizens to these problems. Dzerzhinsk was selected for study after it was described in newspapers as “the dirtiest (i.e., most polluted) city in Russia.”

The post-Cold War period allowed the U.S. nuclear legacy of ecocide to be declassified and made public. The policy of nuclear secrecy, evident in Russia (see Mironova et al., this volume), was not merely an eastern practice. Western nuclear releases were kept equally under wraps. In England, for example, the Windscale disaster was not fully disclosed until 1987.1 Likewise, releases from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in Washington State, and other U.S. nuclear sites were kept undercover until the same period. The irony was that Americans learned of many of the nuclear skeletons in their closet around the time that Russians learned of theirs (see Mironova et al., this volume). It would appear that glasnost was contagious.

How are identified instances of contamination addressed, assuming they have been identified and disclosed? The U.S. has evolved an activist ethos with regard to contamination – both in terms of identifying it and, in the case of identified contamination, taking some engineering action to remediate the hazard. In Chapter 13, A Grassroots Perspective on the Brownfields and Superfund Programs, veteran New Jersey grassroots leader Madelyn Hoffman offers a thorough review of the Superfund program that, since 1980s, has guided U.S. cleanup of sites identified as contaminated at a threshold demanding remediation. She provides a detailed overview of the process identifying the problem and for developing and comparing alternative approaches for remediation. Public involvement is integral to this process, as is the assessment of health risks for local populations. Hoffman also describes the more recent process of Brownfields remediation added as an adjunct to Superfund to more speedily return contaminated lands to productive use. If Superfund has been the subject of political opposition for its regulations, costs and for tying up property, Brownfields offers the political remedy by streamlining cleanup in order to foster reuse. The downside of this streamlined mitigation, however, as Hoffman stresses, may be the sacrifice in the quality of restoring the contaminated land, leading to future toxic exposures. Finally, throughout her discussion, Hoffman stresses the vital role of the grassroots network of organizations in the U.S. that “watchdog” local environments. Under the leadership of Lois Marie Gibbs, this grassroots network has become a force fighting for environmental cleanup and supporting newly discovered contaminated communities as they grapple with the attendant issues. In this view, it is the combination of laws and regulations and political will with an active level of citizen oversight and participation that makes the environmental cleanup process work.

In the United States, nearly 50,000 pounds of waste per person is produced annually, for a total of approximately 6 billion tons of waste, one ton for each person living on the planet Earth. But not all wastes are created equal. U.S. businesses generate some 100 pounds of toxic and hazardous waste per day for every American resident. The impacts of municipal solid waste combine with the legacy of toxins released through pre-production, industrial production, transportation, releases and spills, direct use, byproduct wastes, and end use wastes.

The world community has long striven for the liquidation of chemical weapons of mass destruction. The 1925 Geneva treaty “On the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacterial Methods of Warfare” was the first international accord on chemical weapons prohibition. Signed by 125 countries, the USSR ratified the treaty in December 1927. The later development of the “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and their Destruction” (henceforth “the Convention”) followed this early step and was undertaken with Russia's active participation. The Convention was signed by the Russian Federation in January 1993 and ratified by the State Duma in November 1997 with the decision to end chemical weapons stockpiling by 2007. As a signatory, Russia accepted international responsibilities for solving many interrelated problems, paramount among them was the protection of people and the environment (The Convention…, 1994, item 4).

In the cold war era, perhaps there were no greater heroes of the Soviet Union than the as many as 700,000 firefighters, workers, and military personnel who fought the blazing fires at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that burned out of control for months until smothered by a makeshift concrete structure, called the “sarcophagus” built to contain radioactive releases. Whether this sarcophagus will last as long as the Egyptian monuments, its name evokes has been a matter of grave continuing concern. And it is doubtful that its symbolism as a lasting evidence of 20th century life will be equally appreciated through the ages. But in April 26, 1986, northern Europe had been placed in dire peril by the catastrophic accident in the number 4 reactor at Chernobyl. Smoke pouring from the fires lofted high in the sky to carry radioactive contaminants eventually across the Northern Hemisphere. Some 100 million curies of radiation were released within 10 days of the initial explosion, comprising the word's worst civilian radiation release (Lawrence Livermore, 1999). And, the reactor threatened to unleash a nuclear explosion that would have dwarfed the effects of what already was the world's worst nuclear accident. The situation demanded extreme sacrifice (see also Zykova, this volume).

The deteriorating relationship between humans and the environment is a cause for our concern. On one hand, the human influence on nature has resulted in global climate change and a decline in the health of the world's oceans. On the other hand, it is evident that humans cannot adapt to new ecological conditions, as evidenced by new diseases. Is there any way out of the crisis?

Volgograd, Russia, my home for most of my life, was entirely rebuilt after World War II. Under its prior name, Stalingrad, the city was the epicenter for what many believe was the most crucial battle in the entire war. That battle came at the cost of many millions dead and wounded and the destruction of all but one shell of a building. From this oblivion, a new city arose under the direct order of Stalin, who mobilized captured German engineers for the task. Following his concept of planning, the city would be long and narrow, hugging the banks of the mighty Volga River for some 80km. The width would involve only two main thoroughfares with side streets. The narrow profile would allow for farms and dachas to be close by on one side and the river on the other, providing bounteous and accessible food. Residences were organized in neighborhoods formed around key enterprises lining the river to meet their needs for water. The neighborhood designs allowed workers to easily walk to work. It was a truly utopian scheme.

The City of New York was suddenly and deliberately attacked on September 11, 2001, killing thousands of people and leaving unbelievable destruction. Thirty-eight buildings and structures were destroyed or damaged, including seven buildings in the World Trade Center site completely leveled. Almost five years later, two very large contaminated buildings, Deutsche Bank at 130 Liberty Street and Fiterman Hall of Borough of Manhattan Community College, have yet to be cleaned up and demolished. Some 30 million square feet of commercial space was lost. Transportation was disrupted, including the loss of the World Trade Center PATH station, the 1/9 subway line and portions of Route 9A and Church Street. Cars were not allowed south of Canal Street for a week. For Americans this was a terrorist attack and a crime. It was a time for mourning losses and responding to disaster. There was the shock that something like this could happen. And there was more. The destruction of the WTC also posed competing environmental, economic and social threats.

The chapter compares the factors involved in environmental altruism, the willingness to involve oneself in working for environmental and ecological goals, in Russia and the United States. The lead authors developed the idea for the research from their participation in the grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, examining how Russia and the United States deal with contamination in their communities. We were the only clinical psychologists in the group that toured in Russia, and we both taught young people at universities, sometimes in courses that dealt specifically about the environment, but more usually in courses that helped prepare them for their roles as psychologists. Because of our clinical perspective, we had several discussions about the role of the individual in dealing with the environment. The role of the individual is particularly critical to environmental issues in Russia. Although Russia has even more strict environmental laws than the United States, its level of enforcement has been minimal. At the same time, environmental activism is a relatively new phenomenon there and it faces cultural and social barriers. While activism plays a major role in the United States to keep the system functioning, efforts to deal with contamination in the United States generally occur on a political and legal level in the context of creating and enforcing laws. While the U.S. activists are hardly satisfied with the system's functioning, a greater level of creativity and commitment is needed from Russian environmental activists to help the nation even reach this level of routine enforcement of environmental laws.

Four cast iron lions guard the charming Lions footbridge crossing St. Petersburg's Griboedov Canal. The first author strolled across the bridge on an August evening in 1998 with a Russian friend, Polina. The experience presents a parable for concluding this volume:As we crossed the bridge in the dark, we barely avoided stepping into a gaping hole in the deck half way across. A person could easily fall through. I reacted as a typical American, immediately taking responsibility for doing something about the problem, looking for some board to place over the hole or a barrier to warn pedestrians or someone to report the hazard to who would address it promptly. Polina indicated that no Russian would make such a fuss, and she could think of no one to report the hazard to who would respond. As we stood discussing this problem before two of the guardian lions, a group of drunken soldiers began to cross the bridge from the far side, arm in arm, singing loudly. Sure enough, one slipped through the hole and, but for his comrades holding his arms, he would have plunged into the canal. Surely they will report it, I said, but Polina was doubtful. She saw little chance for some protective action to fix the bridge or even to warn passers-by to beware. We went on our way mindful of the problem left behind. Perhaps a month after my return to the U.S., I received an email from Polina that she had gone to the bridge and, to her surprise, it was fixed. “Perhaps,” she wrote, “there is hope for Russia after all.”

Tatyana J. Andrushchenko is dean of the School of Psychology and Social Work, head of the Department of Social Work and professor of psychology at Volgograd State Pedagogical University. Dr. Andrushenko earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the Russian Federation Education Academy, Institute of Psychology. Her primary work is in child development, counselling methods, interpersonal communication, and the evaluation of social psychological services. She has participated in exchange programs in Denmark, the Netherlands, and the US.

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Research in Social Problems and Public Policy
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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