A Deadly Secret: The Story Behind The Cleanup of a Former Soviet Arms Site

TCE coverJust how hard is it to clean up a toxic polluted site sitting on top of a “bomb,” at a secret site?

This month’s TCE magazine features the story behind our work dealing with one of the most dangerous examples of legacy pollution – the toxic remains of Soviet arms production.

In a former Soviet town, a secret chemical factory sat abandoned for more than a decade with hundreds of drums of leaking toxic chemicals near tons of explosives. The plant was a toxic dump on top of a forgotten ‘bomb’ in the centre of a city housing 290,000 people. It had all the components and potential for a historic and horrifying industrial accident. 

Read the rest of the story, a first hand account by Andrew McCartor, Pure Earth/Blacksmith’s program director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.



Incubating Ideas for Change at the Bellagio Center

This July, we are returning to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy to convene a third meeting of world leaders and experts on pollution, this time to create a global alliance to deal with legacy pollution at scale.

Our previous two meetings at the Bellagio Center, held in 2007 and 2012, were instrumental in bringing the issue of pollution to the world stage.  The Bellagio Center has incubated some of the most innovative ideas and has had a record of major impact, including meetings that led to the Green Revolution and the Global AIDS vaccine initiative.

As we get ready to take the fight against pollution to the next level, here is a look back at my statement about participating in that first conference as recounted in  Voices and Visions from Bellagio, which also includes contributions from other Bellagio Center participants such as Maya Angelou, Joseph Heller and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Creating change is difficult. Especially global change. Inspiration is one thing, but, as we have heard so often, 99 percent of work is really perspiration.

When we decided to tackle pollution at a global level, we knew we had an idea that was extremely important, that would save lives. But the problem is new to most people. The problem of pollution in developing countries has no think tanks, no networked conferences, no guest appearance presentations at Davos. But it kills millions, most of them children, and is inherently solvable.

To tackle this problem help is needed on all fronts. One organization cannot solve this on its own. Instead, we need to convince others that they can make a difference, and show them how. This has been Blacksmith’s strategy from the beginning, reaching out to decision-makers, showing them the problem and the solution, and coaxing them into action. Starting from zero, it’s a daunting process.

The Bellagio Center has been the most welcome partner in that process! We were fortunate to host the inaugural conference for the Health and Pollution Fund at the Center, which kicked off the process for dealing with global pollution. And because we had the resources of the Bellagio Center, we were able to attract the top people from many international agencies and governments to the conference, and gain their concurrence that this problem needs to be addressed. Our participants came from 12 countries, all at a senior level, and it was partly the thrill of visiting this beautiful and renowned place that brought them all together.

We are now well on the way to implementing a global strategy for dealing with pollution around the world. We could not have begun this process without Bellagio.

Blacksmith’s Pollution Tipping Point with Karti Sandilya

Karti Sandilya, Blacksmith Institute

Karti Sandilya, Advisor, Blacksmith Institute

In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, he describes how little things can make a big difference, and he points to “connectors” – people who provide links to others – as a crucial element for bringing something to a head. In Blacksmith’s case, that connector seems to be Karti Sandilya.  Over the last ten years, with his help, Blacksmith has brought the issue of pollution to a boiling point.  Governments and funders are now starting to pay attention.

An expert in development policy and strategy, and a former country director for the Asian Development Bank, Karti’s connections in governments and international institutions are extraordinary.  Through his efforts we have opened doors to the World Bank, the European Commission and governments all over the world to help in our efforts to eradicate toxic pollution in poor countries.

I recently got back from a trip with him to Tokyo, Honk Kong, Beijing, Manila, Sydney, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo seeking support for the World Bank’s Global Alliance for Legacy Pollution and Health initiative. Despite the grueling schedule of travel and back-to-back meetings, it was a delight to be around Karti and watch him work. He is one of the kindest and happiest men I have ever met, and his ability to make connections between people and projects has been invaluable.

I am writing about him today to reiterate Malcolm Gladwell’s point.  That small things do make a big difference. That one person, can have a big impact.  Not everyone can be Karti Sandilya,  but working together, we can all make things happen. Thanks Karti.

Related:  Karti talks about the changing global attitude towards the pollution problem and his work with Blacksmith

Pollution, Poverty and the I.Q. Connection

Does pollution plague a country because it is poor? Or does pollution make a country poor?

While the case for the former can be easily made — poorer nations have less resources for cleanup and regulations; the case for the latter is often ignored. But the fact is, pollution destroys economies, triggering an endless cycle of poverty.

Here is a vivid example of how this happens:

Under normal circumstances, in a population of 100 million, if average IQ is 100, there are 6 million gifted people (IQ above 130) who can be expected to drive the economy forward, and 6 million cognitively impaired (IQ below 70) who will likely depend on social or government welfare.

If the average IQ in that population is driven down 5 points to 95 as a consequence of widespread exposure to lead, the number of gifted individuals falls by more than half to 2.4 million, while the number of cognitively disabled persons rises to 9.4 million.  This decimates the future leadership of entire countries and further increases disparities between rich and poor nations.

It is a little ironic but the growing worldwide focus on global warming issues and the environment has, in a way, made the problem of toxic pollution more widespread.  All the increased scrutiny on industry has given rise to a sad legacy in many developing countries — legacy pollution, which refers to pollution left behind when a factory is closed or abandoned, or if the polluter has gone bankrupt.  At many of these “orphaned” sites, the pollution…and the population remain.  Here, people are routinely exposed to levels of toxins simply unacceptable in the West.

So what’s the lesson? Toxic pollution does more than just cripple and kill.  It traps and engulfs.

Here’s a one-page summary, The Effects of Toxic Pollution in the Developing World, looking at how health, education, economic development, and the ecology are all affected.