NORILSK — The belly of Mother Russia is most fertile 1,000 meters underground and 300 kilometers north of the polar circle. Outside, the temperature can drop as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit. But down below, it’s warm and moist. And the walls shine. The blocks that detach themselves as bulldozers strike the stone are loaded with precious and semi-precious metals: nickel, copper, palladium and platinum.
In the “Skalista” mine, in Norilsk, monstrous machines stride along a maze of tunnels that will soon reach 2,000 meters below ground level. The sound of the machines shaving off the walls is terrible. Danger is omnipresent. “The worst thing is the fires,” explains Ivan Grinchuk, lead engineer at the mining group Komsomolsky, an affiliate of Norilsk Nickel.
This year, at least four miners have lost their lives in accidents. “What can I say? That’s how mining is. It’s the same all over the world,” says Grinchuk, who’s been working in Norilsk for 20 years. “It was a lot worse in the 1960s,” he adds. Grinchuk says the accidents are often caused by drunk workers. “When that’s the case,” he explains, “their families don’t get any compensation payments.”
Conditions are tough on the surface too, where the ore, after it’s been extracted from the depths of the earth, is sorted and sent to nearby copper or nickel foundries. The area is home to approximately 170,000 people, all exposed to the very high emissions of sulfur dioxide.
There is almost no vegetation to be seen in the 30 kilometers around the gigantic smelting plant. Opened in 1942, the plant was closed by Norilsk Nickel in September because it couldn’t keep within acceptable environmental norms. Its blackened carcass now looks down on a city blanketed in snow nine out of 12 months.
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