Back in the early 1970s, at the beginning of the environmental movement, deadly acid rain arising from the operations of the copper-nickel smelting plant in Sudbury, Ontario, became the iconic symbol of everything that had gone wrong with our rapidly developing industrial system during the first half of the 20th century. With the world's tallest stack emitting copious amounts of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere, the INCO's Sudbury plant in Canada converted the surrounding area near Lake Huron into a virtual moonscape, where little or no vegetation or animals could survive.
Today, that dubious honor belongs to a little known, highly secretive smelting plant in Norilsk, a remote town on the northern shores of Siberia, where for the past several decades the huge industrial plant has spewed copious amounts of acid-rain forming sulfurous gases into the surrounding region.
Below are excerpts from a news report by a BBC investigative team that recently received special permission to visit the Norilsk Nickel plant in Siberia, which ironically produces nearly half the world's supply of palladium, a precious metal widely used in automobile's catalytical converters to reduce emissions of tailpipe air pollutants:
Toxic Truth of Secretive Siberian City
A BBC team has entered a remote region of Russia normally closed to foreigners that produces almost half the world's supply of palladium - a precious metal vital for making catalytic converters. But, as the BBC's Richard Galpin reports, it is accused of being the world's largest producer of acid rain. Norilsk Nickel, which owns the smelters and all the nearby mines containing the precious metal ore, allowed us into the largest of their smelting plants, which they call "Hope".
Built in the late 1970s, it is the most modern of the three plants. The oldest dates back to the 1930s, when the metal industry and Norilsk were built from scratch by prison labourers - victims of Stalin's brutal Gulag. The inner sanctum of "Hope" is a deafening, choking cauldron. Vast furnaces roast the ore extracted from the mines, eventually disgorging streams of red-hot liquid metal into containers that dwarf the workers standing nearby. A rich mix of metals is produced here, including nickel, copper, palladium, platinum, gold and silver. But the ore also contains a large amount of sulphur.
According to figures provided by the company, the total amount of sulphur dioxide produced by all three plants is almost two million tons a year - a figure which has only decreased by about 16% since the last days of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. The environmental organisation Greenpeace Russia says the pollution has created a 30km (19 mile) "dead zone" around the city and quotes scientists as saying the acid rain has spread across an area equivalent in size to Germany.
The toll on the local population living near the plant is incalculable, since very little record are being collected by regulatory authorities to document either the short-term acute illnesses of the town's children and adults or the long-term chronic health impact of the larger surrounding community. Unfortunately, for the town's people, their economic dependency on the nickel-palladium smelting plant allow them almost no recourse but to put up with the current environmental health nightmare they are living under for many years to come.
But for the company Norilsk Nickel, which employs most of the city's workforce, there is a huge amount of money at stake. It is the world's largest producer of both nickel and palladium. It made more than $2bn net profit in the first half of last year alone and company officials told us there is enough ore in the mines around Norilsk to keep them in business for at least another 30 years.