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

Remember 1993

Twenty-five years ago, business took a beating in Olympia. The swing to the left in the 1992 general election was swift and potent. It drove higher costs to employers and more government regulations.

Rural prosperity essential to Washington

While Seattle is growing rapidly, our rural areas continue to struggle. They don’t have the corporate giants such as Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing creating jobs and economic opportunities. Farms are predominantly family-owned.

Amazon’s plan reminiscent Boeing’s Chicago move

Last year, Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates wrote about the similarities and differences between Boeing’s corporate office move to Chicago and Amazon’s plan for a second headquarters.

LiveLocal98022 meeting cancelled

Bob Green, the night’s speaker, notified the organization he couldn’t attend due to an illness.

Expanded Panama Canal among challenges for Washington Ports

The $5.4 billion spent to expand the Panama Canal is paying off for East Coast and Gulf of Mexico seaports; however, it is putting more pressure on the Northwest to remain competitive.

Players taking a knee hurting the NFL | Don Brunell

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Portland, a young woman stepped onto the playing field at the beginning of the University of Montana vs Portland State football game and started singing our national anthem. She immediately drew a blank on the words and briefly stopped, but as she started apologizing, the fans spontaneously took up the singing.

New metal collecting machine may clean up contaminated waters

There is a new machine being tested in Montana which could decontaminate toxic mine tailings while recovering valuable precious minerals for everyday use.

Workshop will focus on business, social media

All are invited to learn how social media can impact business and how it can be used to create a positive experience for customers.

Impact of Hirst decision must be address

In Washington, the legislative stalemate over permitting new household wells and the state’s construction budget has not only delayed needed funding for public projects, but triggered yet another salvo in the wider conflict over future supplies of fresh water for people, fish and farms.

Mitigate massive wildfire danger | Don Brunell

At last count firefighters were battling 82 major wildfires in 10 western states. The fires have already scorched 2,300 square miles of forests and range lands, dislocated thousands of people, and burned hundreds of homes and buildings.

Silver linings to Hurricane Harvey | Don Brunell

All of the things that went wrong in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, appear to have been corrected with Houston’s recent Hurricane Harvey. Chalk it up to a series of important lessons learned.

Workshops aim to help small business owners and startups | Pierce County Library System

Pierce County Library System, in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), is offering two workshops to help entrepreneurs start and grow a successful business as well as share tips to advance existing small businesses.