Russia (Dzerzhinsk) – Groundwater Pollution

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the details…
Key pollutant
Lead, heavy metals, arsenic,
Phenol, arsenic, dioxins, heavy metals, and a host of other toxins

Soil, water, airborne

Population affected
Children Under 6 Affected
Chemical industry
Date started
April 2006
Date completed
March 2007
Cost of project

The Problem

A once-secret manufacturing center of the Soviet Union’s defense industry, Dzerzhinsk (population 300,000) has hosted many chemical factories, including production facilities for Sarin and VX nerve gas. Lead additives for gasoline, mustard gas, munitions, and other highly-polluting products can also claim this city as their birthplace. While many of these factories are now closed, the chemical industry still employs over a quarter of local residents. The groundwater and soil around the city, about 250 miles east of Moscow, remain severely polluted with phenol, arsenic, dioxins, heavy metals, and a host of other toxins. Indeed, a dominant ecological landmark in the area is the “White Sea”, a 100-acre-wide lake of toxic sludge discharged from nearby factories.

Clearly, Dzerzhinsk faces huge challenges in managing this legacy of toxic wastes. It holds the ignominious title of “The Most Chemically Polluted Town” in the world. Greenpeace claims that the average life expectancy of city residents may have shrunk to a mere 45 years. The city’s annual death rate, 17 per 1,000 people, is much higher than Russia’s national average of 14 per 1,000. And, according to researchers at the Nizhny Novgorod Research Institute of Hygiene and Occupational Pathology, rates of reproductive health disturbances affecting women and fetuses, as well as rates of respiratory and pulmonary diseases in children, are dangerously high. In study after study, the health impacts of these chemicals continue to dampen enthusiasm and drain resources needed for economic and social recovery in Dzerzhinsk.

While there are many pollution-related issues that cry out for investment and remediation in the city, water quality is of paramount importance. The Dzerzhinsk Committee of Environmental Control, a local government agency dedicated to finding solutions for pollution-related problems, has highlighted the degree to which the quality of drinking water in some residential areas of the city, damaged by years of discharge of as many as 150 separate toxic chemicals, does not come close to meeting safety standards. Despite this assessment, the city still draws its drinking water from the same aquifers abused by toxic wastes and unused products over many years.
One area of particular concern is the residential sector of Gavrilovka (population 1,000), about 2 miles away from a former tetraethyl lead production facility.

Environmental testing conducted in 2002 by a Russian laboratory identified elevated levels of metals (e.g., lead, arsenic) and toxic organic compounds in the groundwater that serves as the primary source for residents’ drinking water. Industrial wastewater discharges and solid waste leaching were identified as primary sources of groundwater contamination.


Blacksmith Institute has launched a project to identify effective solutions for improving the quality of drinking water in Gavrilovka and to prevent the further release of toxins from the Volosyanikha Canal into the Oka River Basin. Supervision and implementation of this project will be through the Dzerzhinsk Committee of Environmental Control.

During 2004, several options to improve drinking water quality will be evaluated by the committee. For example, in Gavrilovka, the construction of a six-mile-long extension of a successful drinking water distribution system located in a nearby town will be considered. In addition to review of existing data on water pollution and regular, updated testing of water quality using internationally accepted protocols, the committee will develop and publish specific plans of action to address water quality issues at each site.

Implementation Strategy:
1.  The Dzerzhinsk Committee of Environmental Control led work of project team.
2.  Testing was conducted by the following laboratories:
•    Laboratory of Environmental Monitoring, Dzerzhinsk Branch, Russian State Hydrometeorological Committee
•    Volgageologia’s laboratory
•    Laboratory of the Sanitary-Epidemiological Surveillance, City of Dzerzhinsk
3. For quality control purposes, a subset of split samples was analyzed by the State Laboratory, Russian State Hydrometeorological Committee (City of Obninsk, Moscow region) and by the Laboratory of Ecotoxicology, Institute of Ecology and Evolution (Moscow). These two laboratories had participated in the Russian-American project on lead risk reduction and demonstrated adequate reproducibility of analytical results (Ref).
4.  In addition, for quality assurance purposes and for building capacities for environmental monitoring in Russia, all laboratories included in the proposed project were enrolled in the US EPA’s inter-laboratory calibration program for heavy metal analysis entitled Environmental Lead Proficiency Accreditation Testing (ELPAT).


Blacksmith Institute is working, village by village, to restore safe water to city residents. In Spring 2005, Blacksmith completed the construction of a water filtration system in Gavrilovka village, ensuring safe water for village residents, the local hospital, and a school. Blacksmith has also funded the establishment of a steering committee led by a local NGO (DRONT), in cooperation with the Nizhniy Novgorod municipal government, to begin the design of a large-scale remediation and pollution mitigation plan for the entire affected area.