The «dragon’s blood», «living silver», «silver water» or «mercury» have been known to people since 10,000 years ago. In the beginning, the reddish mercury ore — cinnabar — was used as a dye: people painted their bodies and beards with it, dyed fabrics in a noble purple colour. The legendary Paracelsus successfully used mercury preparations and mercury salts to treat patients. Even today mercury devices and mercury preparations are used in medicine. Without «rattlesnake» mercury in detonator capsules and detonating cords, rifles and machine guns would not fire, shells and mines would not explode. The list of mercury uses in the national economy could go on for a long time. But today we are talking about something else: the price paid by the miners of mercury.
The origins of mercury mining in Gorlovka
In the Nikitovka area the industrial mining of «silver water» began in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1890 the «Mercury Production Association of A. Auerbach & Co0» received 17835 poods of mercury. And 1897 was a record year — 37600 poods (626.6 tons). In mid 1927 the Nikitovsk mercury plants together with the coal units were transformed into a single production complex under the name Nikitovsk mercury plant. In 1957 the reconstruction and expansion of the combine, as well as the organization of open-cast mining (in the quarry) began. In the 1960s the Soviet Union’s demand for the purest mercury was already fully met, and much of it was exported to England, France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan. The price of mercury on the London Stock Exchange was 280-285 dollars per bottle (34.5 kg). The Nikitov Combine was even able to surpass the United States in total mercury production.
In 1985, the combine turned 100 years old. The founder of the plant, Auerbach, would not have recognized the area where the operation was started: the steppe was disfigured by huge waste dumps and quarries. Mercury was being mined by an unprecedented number of people — nearly 3,000 — armed with modern machinery. No one gave a thought to such notions as «ecological safety» and «environmental protection».
Every night the residents of the villages of Bessarabka, Mercury, Komarova and Komsomolets shuddered when loud thudding explosions sounded — an open-pit mercury mine was in operation. Despite all technological tricks, clouds of mercury dust shot up into the sky, shrouding the neighbourhood in a yellowish cloud. Housing estates were built underneath the very mines and quarries. Much later it became known that radioactive gravel from the rock dumps of the mercury plant was widely used in the construction.
By the end of the twentieth century, the need for mercury began to decline as other, less toxic drugs for medical and technical use were found, and in Ukraine the economic crisis began, which finally killed Nikitov Mercury Plant. The plant was declared bankrupt and a liquidation commission has been working there ever since.
The mercury quarries, frozen like mouths in a cry, are a nightmarish spectacle: bottomless and endless reddish-grey, almost Martian craters. The desire of our ancestors to mine useful metal for their humble needs, we — the descendants — have brought it to the point of absurdity. And now we feel strangely sad about the fact that the monster factory is dead.
Perhaps, subconsciously, it is not so much its demise that grieves us, but the fact that when it dies, it drags us with it: a village of mercury miners, accustomed to a relatively well-off life, is dying in the full sense of the word.
But is it worth regretting that people are leaving here and School 9 has already closed? Hardly. It is much worse that the mercury mine is dying. No one has thoroughly investigated what would happen if the pumps were switched off and it (like neighbouring closed coal mines) were completely flooded with underground water. It is only clear, that it will not do any good to the surrounding areas: there is a real threat to environmental safety of water intakes, which provide water to settlements. Therefore, the mine is mothballed using the «dry» method, which requires millions of dollars in investments every month… And the residents of the town of Mercutny are engaged in gardening activities directly under the pit dumps. The owners of «Klondike» not only quietly use tomatoes and cucumbers from these plots, but also sell them in nearby markets. The goats and cows that feed themselves at the quarries and supply the local people with dairy products are a different story — no one has examined all this «farm produce» for safety reasons.
The children in the village play terrible games. They regularly bring the found mercury to the neighbourhood schools, spill it in the classrooms and have fun, watching the fuss of adults to decontaminate the premises. And the adults are no less happy than the children to tell tales about how all of us here in Gorlovka are mutants! But we are special mutants — very-smart, advanced and creatively gifted. There is no special research about how life near mercury really affects us. Or we just don’t know about them.
But Mercury is certainly categorized as a Hazard Class I facility, with a regulatory sanitary zone of 1000 metres. The zone, of course, does not exist: there are hundreds of residential buildings within a kilometre radius of the plant.
Here is a sampling from a practically unknown to the population of Gorlovka’s sickness rate
In spite of some positive dynamics of atmospheric air quality, sickness rate of the population continues to grow. This can be explained by the effect of remote action of harmful substances on the human organism.
There is an increase in indicators of blood diseases, endocrine system, acute laryngitis, allergic rhinitis, chronic bronchitis and bronchial asthma. Malignant neoplasms of the lip, oral cavity and pharynx, stomach, skin melanoma, lymphoma and leukaemia are detected more frequently than in 2000. Bronchial asthma is detected more often in Stroitel, Komsomolets, Komarova and Rututny than in 2000.
For better or for worse, Horlivka and Ukraine have lost an enterprise which has no analogues in the world. The liquidation committee is selling out the plant’s fixed assets today to pay off debts. Gorlovka’s «greens» persistently agitate the public with the problems of the frozen giant. Something has been done: the mercury pits have been partially backfilled. And Mother Nature is landscaping her own wounds.
In the storms of the economic crisis, of the former subsidiaries of Mercury, only the production unit that has become the mill’s successor, albeit on a different scale, has survived. This is the Nikitrutyr LLC.
There is a portrait of Alexander Auerbach hanging in the office of Mikhail Khanin, the head of Nikittrut, LLC. The former laid the mercury business a century and a half ago, not caring much about environmental safety. The second one, on the threshold of the third millennium, carefully preserves what is left and tries with all his might to find ways to develop production in a reasonable and, most importantly, environmentally friendly way. Somebody must be responsible, at least partially, for our general barbarism, right?
Mikhail Khanin tells us:
— In 2000, together with the regional state administration, the Antimonopoly Committee and the State Property Fund, the Nikitrutyr LLC was created from the remains of the mercury plant. However, it is one thing to sign and execute documents, and another thing to solve the tasks at hand. «The company has taken over the right of succession in the production of mercury from the ore stockpiled earlier as well as from the wastes of different enterprises. We want not to lose precious experience and to arm ourselves with advanced technologies.
We have succeeded in some things. Today we managed to bring the sales volume of our products and services to one million hryvnias. This is not the limit.
Now Nikytrtut is an environmentally friendly enterprise: we do not contaminate rivers, ground water or air with mercury-containing waste. The company not only keeps itself «in shape» but also has the capacity to provide services to others to dispose of mercury-containing waste. The company is strengthening its ties with Radical in Kiev. Recycling of contaminated mercury and sludge is underway. We have not only retained the main consumer of mercury of various grades — Russia. Business relations have emerged with Hungary, Azerbaijan and other countries. The demand for our products is growing again. People are our main wealth. There are not many employees, and we try to provide them with civilized working conditions.
But, like any business, Nikitrtuti has its fair share of problems. Here are some of them. Due to the fact that Ukraine is not part of the EU, cooperation with a number of European member states has been suspended: the EU Basic Convention prohibits the export of waste, including that containing mercury, outside their national territories. This threatens the loss of customers.
A large part of the plant has to be dismantled. But the problem is that there is still a presidential moratorium on selling the property of state-owned bankrupt enterprises: the liquidator has no right to take any action in respect of them. Besides, the liquidation of the plant itself will require huge funds: according to the most conservative estimates, it will cost 5 to 7 million US dollars. Although some of the equipment could be liquidated at the expense of self-financing. The company has already started demercurization of the equipment that was used in the old NRC electrolysis shop. This will allow tons of metal to be sent to steel mills as scrap. If, of course, the presidential moratorium is lifted.
In short, OOO Nikittrut is not a temporary phenomenon, it is serious and for a long time. And the global consequences of the irrational use of natural wealth are still unclear.