In February 2019, Russian branch of BBC shared a story about environmental disaster in a small Russian town of Sibay located on the border between Europe and Asia. Prior to the BBC report Sibay had been mostly known by its location since it is literally founded at the edge of the deepest open-dip mine in Russia. The story about environmental disaster dates back to November 2018 when the citizens of Sibay started complaining about nasty odor spreading across residential areas. Despite severe symptoms of respiratory problems and poisoning including coughing, throat discomfort, nose bleeding and nausea, the local government has not reported any anomalies in atmospheric composition of the air in Sibay. In December 2018 the odor got intensified and some locals suggested that the main source of the unbearable smell can be likely found in the notorious quarry. This hypothesis was very reasonable and worth checking since ore mining process is sometimes corresponded by uncontrolled smoldering. Such smoldering results in undesirable release of SO2, a toxic gas posing major threat for respiratory tract and eyes. Moreover, there is a strong link between sustained high concentration of SO2 in the atmosphere and high risk of cancer.
Despite BBC did a good job by spotlighting the Sibay problem, most credits for dragging this story out from the blind zone of media radars must be given to the group of local activists. The activists have figured out the physical and chemical drivers of potential smoldering processes in the mine and proved a disability of local environmental monitoring to track the dangerous pollutants. More specifically, they found out that a local mobile laboratory has demonstrated severe disagreement in intercomparison experiment that involved two other independent instruments and shared this story (supported by numerous arguments) with the local community. The activists have decided to organize independent (from governmental efforts) atmospheric monitoring and installed a gas analyzer in the close vicinity to the quarry in February 2018. Later on, several other analyzers were installed. These gas analyzers can measure SO2 atmospheric concentration in the range of 0-32 micrograms per cubic meter with an overall accuracy of 10% (we note that this is satisfactory accuracy for such instrument) at nearly all possible weather conditions typical for this region.
The first gas analyzer showed alarming peaks in SO2 atmospheric concentration between February and March 2019 (shown on the plot below). According to these observations, maximum allowable daily concentration of SO2 (equals to 0.05 mg/m^3 per day according to Russian laws) has been exceeded 40 times since February. If we take World Health Organization guidelines as a reference, then threshold has been exceeded 49 times (SO2 concentration should be not higher than 0.02 mg/m^3) during this period. During some days this maximum allowable concentration has been exceeded on factors of 200, 300, 400 and 700. Aftermath, the Sibay activists published their estimates and shared the story via social media. At the first step, the activists have encountered severe ignorance but once the information about the problem received the Federal Government, the local authorities also approved evidences of step-wise increase of SO2 concentration in Sibay. The theory about SO2 origin has been also supported since the government discovered hidden cavities (inside the mine) where ore was smoldering or even burning. Ultimately, the government issued an order about evacuation of citizens from several districts severely exposed by enhanced SO2 concentration.
To understand the problem of Sibay more deeply, we spoke with Eduard Kadyrov a proactive member of the environmental activist group. We asked him several questions about the current situation with SO2 monitoring and atmospheric pollution issues in Sibay.
- Was there any regular monitoring of atmospheric pollution in Sibay given the uniqueness of the quarry?
- There is… now, but it was organized by our group of activists in the end of February 2019. It was organized by nonprofit citizen group from our town. According to our information, the smoldering of ore had started much earlier and the photos from 2017 can approve that suggestion. Perhaps, the problem has become widely-known due to unfavorable meteorological situation. In our region we often have windy conditions, but during last winter we frequently observed no wind conditions. On top of that, the smoldering has likely intensified due to a lack of proper maintenance and anti-smoldering activities in the mine.
- Which standard do you use for determining critical threshold of human exposure under SO2?
- We use the regulation introduced by the main health officer of Russia from 22.12.2017 according to which the maximum allowable threshold of SO2 concentration is 0.05 mg/m^3 and 0.5 mg/m^3 for daily and one-time scales respectively.
- SO2 is a highly toxic gas and the quarry is located in very close vicinity to the residential areas (see the photo below). Has SO2 release already affected Sibay citizens? Is there any statistics about hospital visits with respiratory-related complaints? Is there any underestimation of the problem from healthcare side?
- During the entire period, we have not seen a single approved case of gas poisoning at the local hospitals. We have encountered the utter ignorance of the situation from the local healthcare system perspective. Fortunately, we obtained an access the official document stating that since January 2019 we are evidencing 131-475% growth in cases of pneumonia among the local citizens under the age of 17.
- Have you encountered denial of the problem at the political level? If yes, at which level the denial emerged?
- Yes, during the first month we were blatantly cheated. We were told that there is no exceedance of pollutants. That is why we started thinking about our own monitoring. We noticed severe discrepancy between two portions of information provided by the government about atmospheric pollution in the town during just one day (2 January 2019). In a manner of speaking, the barrier emerged immediately since they tried to prevent the spread of information about the problem by any means. Moreover, the atmospheric monitoring was conducted by the enterprise directly responsible for exploitation of the mine. After a month, their laboratory showed severe discrepancy in observations with two regional laboratories. At the same time the monitoring was formally supervised by Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights (so-called Rospotrebnadzor). Rospotrebnadzor's data on atmospheric pollution in Sibay during these days have never been published despite evidences of strong atmospheric pollution detected by not only insitu observations but also by flask sampling. We received first portion of true data since 15 January (2019) when regional policy and decision-makers have noticed the problem.
- After the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation have noticed Sibay's problem, all necessary steps to mitigate and solve the problem with smoldering in the quarry are performed? If no, what is the problem?
- The enterprise responsible for mining is restrictive and as a result we do not have an open dialogue with them. The information we receive from them is a bare minimum. What we see from their side are postponing of solutions, unclear explanations, repetitive cheating and general lack of transparency.
- People Right Organization recommends to "continue regular monitoring of atmospheric conditions in Sibay and notify the citizens about any decisions about smoldering/fire in the mine". According to your experience, do local decision-makers have all necessary instruments and tools for organizing adequate monitoring and informing people about the problem?
- At the moment, all regional laboratories have left the town. The only monitoring is performed by the enterprise and by the efforts of citizen actions. People take our data seriously and once exceedance is registered, I think regional laboratories will be involved again. Moreover, it was promised that in December the automated monitoring station will be installed. It seems that the deadline would be broken and delay of installation is likely expected.
- You have conducted your own investigation about the drivers of ore smoldering, organized nonprofit citizen monitoring of the atmosphere, attracted the attention of the government in Moscow to your problem, what is next?
- We are currently continuing our monitoring, trying to keep watching after the governmental actions to make sure our problem is completely solved. Moreover, we will be trying to pull out guarantees that such situation won't ever happen. Besides, we will be monitoring the utilization of water that will be pumped out from the mine. This process has already caused a local emergency case when this waste has contaminated water pollution control facilities.
P.s. Since the governmental monitoring has lacked resources and qualified personnel in Sibay, satellite remote sensing of SO2 could provide complementary information that could be used by citizens, activists and even policy-makers. Unfortunately, according to Vitali Fioletov, an expert in air quality monitoring (received his Ph.D. in Moscow State University and currently working at the Environment Canada), the source of SO2 is too localized over Sibay and spaceborne observations are too noisy at such scales. In that situation, we can just hope that government will take all required actions to intervene the problem and until the adequate monitoring is established, citizen monitoring actions organized by Eduard and other activists will help Sibay urbanites to stay informed and protected.
Data from: Eduard Kadyrov