What we didn’t see at Sochi | Don Brunell

During the Winter Olympics, viewers around the world marveled at the pristine snow-capped mountains surrounding Sochi, Russia’s Black Sea resort city.

During the Winter Olympics, viewers around the world marveled at the pristine snow-capped mountains surrounding Sochi, Russia’s Black Sea resort city.

One American camera crew even took a ride on the Siberian railroad filming the picturesque countryside. Too bad they didn’t go all the way to Norilsk, some 1,800 miles from Moscow in the middle of Siberia.

Norilsk is Russia’s most polluted city.  It reminds you of an America mining town a century ago.   It is pockmarked with tall smoke stacks belching out nearly 500 tons each of copper and nickel oxides a year, along with two million tons of sulfur dioxide, a key ingredient in acid rain.

In this city of 175,000, the snow is black, the air tastes of sulfur and the life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. Its foul air accounts for almost 16 percent of all deaths among children.

Norilsk was founded in 1935 as a USSR slave labor mining camp.  Today, its nickel mines and associated smelters produce one-third of the world’s nickel and a substantial portion of Russia’s copper, cobalt, platinum and palladium.

Looking at a photo of Norilsk reminds me of photos of Butte when my great grandfather worked in the underground copper mines in the early 1900s.  Mine head frames dotted Butte Hill, once known as the “Richest Hill on Earth,” and black smoke belched from smelter stacks.

In 1919, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company (ACM) consolidated its ore smelting operations in Anaconda, 25 miles west of Butte, and constructed the world’s largest smoke stack.  In fact, the stack is so tall the 555-foot tall Washington Monument would fit inside it.

In those days, tall smoke stacks dispersed the pollutants away from cities, but in the process, the toxic emissions killed surrounding forest and croplands, as they do today around Norilsk.  ACM bought a half million acres southwest of Anaconda because the vegetation was dying from the smoke.  Today, that land has recovered, and is part of the Mount Haggin Wildlife Management unit, with clear mountain streams and verdant forest.

Over the years, Americans realized that higher smoke stacks only polluted a broader area.  With stronger air pollution laws in the 1970s, power plant owners installed stack scrubbers and many switched to low-sulfur coal from Montana and Wyoming.

ACM installed scrubbers in its massive Anaconda smelter stack and built an $88 million higher efficiency ore furnace. The improvements were costly at a time when copper prices dipped because of the nation’s prolonged recession.

The investments were for naught because on Sept. 29, 1980, known as “Black Monday,” company officials announced that smelter operations were suspended and the smelter would be demolished.  Some 1,200 smelter workers woke up without jobs.

While government officials acted appropriately to reduce pollution and clean up the mining mess, the Anaconda smelter closed largely because it was bleeding red ink.  It couldn’t compete with foreign companies who didn’t have the same rigid environmental standards and production costs.

The world needs copper and nickel, and customers will buy them wherever they’re available.  In this case, Norilsk metals are still on the market.  Anaconda metals are not.

In trying to have pollution-free metals production, we inadvertently drove that industry and those jobs to nations with few environmental protections.  Ironically, our efforts to eliminate pollution in the U.S. have ended up benefitting the world’s worst polluters.

We need to ask ourselves:  Is it better to produce metals here as cleanly as possible with the best technology available or close plants and lose family wages jobs while the world buys metals from the worst polluters on the planet?

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

More in Business

Avoiding trouble while Tweeting | Don Brunell

Your social media can hurt you or help you when looking for a job.

Lampson beating odds for family-owned businesses | Don Brunell

According to The Family Firm Institute, only about 30 percent of family-owned businesses survive into the second generation and fewer than 12 percent are still viable into the third generation.

Columbia River treaty talks too vital to ignore | Don Brunell

The United States and China are currently renegotiating the Columbia River Treaty.

Bellevue company patent infringement win gives small investors hope | Don Brunell

Until recently, our courts have been little help to patent owners.

Podiatrist opens Enumclaw practice

Go see Dr. Bock at 853 Watson Street North, Suite 100.

American giving has surpassed $400 billion | Don Brunell

“Americans’ record-breaking charitable giving in 2017 demonstrates that even in divisive times our commitment to philanthropy is solid.”

Cementing radioactive wastes could save billions | Don Brunell

According to a recent article in the Tri-Cities Herald, the first phase of the demonstration project, grouting three gallons of waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks was successfully completed last December.

Mining contaminated waters to increase copper supplies | Don Brunell

With worldwide demand for copper soaring and there is new pressure to open new mines, expand existing ones, and add ore processing capacity — all of which have serious associated environmental challenges.

GE’s tumble from grace | Don Brunell

General Electric, once the world’s most valuable company, has been topped by Walgreens.

Vintage items, gifts and more at new Enumclaw shop

Featuring an eclectic mix of merchandise, partners Tori Ammons and Melissa Oglesbee… Continue reading

Jetsons cartoon robots now reality | Don Brunell

In April, the U.S. Labor Dept. reported a record high 844,000 unfilled positions in the hospitality industry — which is one out of eight jobs available today.

New shop a sweet spot in downtown Enumclaw

Cole St. now has a new fudge and bakery shop.