What’s “glowing in the dark” in a Russian town is sickly chemical green snow.
There’s a festival of lights this weekend in Pervouralsk, a Russian city of about 125,000 people in a Ural region whose history was built on industry. Yet what’s really “glowing in the dark” is the city’s snow. It’s turned a sickly chemical green, in this latest Russian incident to raise awareness over environmental damage, and spur protests calling on Moscow to act to protect people and planet.
The region’s New Day News sent reporters to affected Pervouralsk communities, where residents described wearing masks because of the fumes and dealing with sick children exposed at school. They found green icicles hanging from the roofs of buildings, and pools of green snow in the streets. They also found that residents see this every year because of dust containing trivalent chromium.
That’s according to Vsevolod Oreshkin, a spokesman for the MidUral Group, which operates a facility in Pervouralsk called Russian Chrome Chemicals 1915. “The situation is normal for residents. This situation should not cause concern. It does not threaten the lives and health of adults and children,” he said in a statement to News Day. The next thing he said, though, made it seem as if green snow was normal.
“This is Pervouralsk,” said Oreshkin, as if describing an immutable condition that explained everything. “It has a whole range of industrial enterprises. If we take samples of snow anywhere, we will see a lot of harmful substances.” The only real difference is that this chromium turns green when it interacts with the snow, so there’s evidence.
In fact, a 2017 accident at the chromium plant caused green snow to fall, and polluted groundwater from the plant was discovered during a November 2016 accident. That turned all the snow green too, but officials said there were no negative consequences so it need not be considered a true “accident.”
Trivalent chromium is considered more stable and less toxic than hexavalent chromium, which is linked to cancer and has serious public health and environmental consequences – although Pervouralsk has seen plenty of that too. The MidUral Group says that the Chusovaya River downstream from the city had readings for hexavalent chromium that exceeded Russian standards for 100 years until it began an environmental protection program in 2011. It also reduced overall air emissions it says were 65 times higher than today’s levels, but both of the improvements raise alarm over a century’s worth of toxicity.
So the reassurances that it is “just” trivalent chromium come in that context, but today they gloss over research that finds exposure to the trivalent form may cause environmental and human health damage. One study underscored the need to remove the trivalent form where both are present, because it interacts with hexavalent chromium to make it more carcinogenic. It may also call into question some methods used in Pervouralsk to convert levels of hexavalent chromium – levels that astonished European experts – into the more benign trivalent rather than removing it.
Less toxic is not the same as safe, and residents in Pervouralsk and across Russia say they have had enough of the environmental pollution. Meanwhile, city officials in Pervouralsk say they’re conducting an inquiry into the latest incident.