Aleksei Bakaliev and I spontaneously decided to undertake this trip together. It was Aleksei’s idea. Aleksei is a well-known blogger and publicist with a background in museum and curatorial studies. This trip was inspired by the legacy of his grandfather, the revered folk author and public figure Suorun Omollon (Sakha name)/Dmitry Kononovich Sivtsev (Russian name).
Originally, Alexei and his friend, like-minded journalist Alexei Tolstyakov, had planned an entirely different journey, but the Vilyuy River crisis necessitated a change of direction. Before the crisis, the Alexeis had planned to take prominent individuals of the Sakha blogosphere on a trip to witness life on the outskirts of the republic. It was envisioned as a journey of cultural education aimed at young urban people unfamiliar with rural and village life. Previously, the Alexeis had traveled together to southern Sakha Republic, and through social media, had shared how our compatriots live in villages like Aldan and Neryungri.
But the ecological catastrophe of August 19/20 forced Aleksei Bakaliev to abandon his plans, and enlist me in service. Aleksei was ill at the time, with a high fever, cough, and runny nose, but nevertheless, he met the task at hand with real heroism. We drove west from Yakutsk in his stalwart 1994 «surfmobile» and covered six uluuses (districts) in two days and nearly 1500 kilometers.
So what did we actually do in those two days? With the help of our friends who helped us crowdfund this trip through social media (more on that in another article), we left Yakutsk on the clear evening of September 4th. Our one goal was to arrive at Mirny and examine the places where the ALROSA dam gave way, allowing massive amounts of post-industrial waste to pour into the Vilyuy river. We were to collect water samples which we would send off for examination by a lab independent of any government or industry ties. We understood that our community needed answers, and quickly.
Many in our community assumed that at the ALROSA Mirny diamond mine, we would discover flagrant violations of environmental safety protocol and various toxic leakages, but the truth is more nuanced. I can attest unambiguously that no one at the mine obstructed us in the performance of our actions, and on the contrary, personnel were supportive of our work. I will not draw hasty conclusions, but I will outline what I saw. Upon arrival to Yakutsk, with the help of numerous activists of the nationally-based movement in defense of the Vilyuy river, I will transfer the water samples to a laboratory for independent examination. And I will only draw conclusions upon receiving the results of the analysis.
We arrive in Mirny district around 4 pm on Wednesday, September 5, 2018. We were met on the ferry crossing of the Little Botuobuya river by Vladislav Gennadievich Yeryomin, Deputy Director of Mirny Ore Mining and Processing Plant, and Maria Buzukina, Marketing and PR Manager of ALROSA. Right on the shore, where the river had flooded on the ill-fated days of August 19/20, Yeryomin shows us maps of the dam, including the location of the break.
After a brief conversation, we continue onto the dredging grounds located near a narrow channel of the river Irelyakh, a place showcasing the violently chaotic qualities of the natural world, with a rapid current rippling through small pools. It is here that the water used in the drainage system of the dam is stored. Our guide assures us that no chemicals are used in this portion of the mine’s operation. We take water samples from this location, and additionally from one reservoir on the nearby landfill. Then we gaze at the dam, whose substantial size makes it hard to imagine the amount of water pressure it would take to break through its heights.
Four fisherman, fishing the straits of Irelyakh, observe us with interest. One holds up his catch for me to see: a decent-sized perch.
Next, we stop at the river Tabornaya, which on September 18 spilled its banks and washed away the nearby road. It’s also a small river, one of thousands in Sakha Republic. We collect samples there. Next through a village of wooden summer cottages, arranged on a Soviet grid of 600 plots, and onwards to the place, where two and half weeks ago, a dam burst. According to Yeryomin, this dam was built many years ago by members of the summer cottage cooperative, in order to build a reservoir within a natural hollow for use in residents’ kitchen gardens. Yeryomin tells us that the dam is now ownerless and unmaintained.
However, we can see the dam was built solidly, with the use of heavy equipment and the installation of drainage pipes in case of overflow of the reservoir. Yeryomin claims that it was this reservoir, this unmaintained human-made lake, that was the source of the accident. As he tells it, after a rainstorm that featured ten times the normal rainfall, a huge mass of water overflowed from this reservoir, taking with it all the mud that had been accumulating there for decades. From there the spill continued into the river Irelyakh, which overflowed its natural channel, eventually collapsing the landfill, and then sweeping the contents of the landfill into the nearby Little Botuobuya, and then into the Vilyuy.
Yeryomin informs us that all relevant governmental departments were notified the day of the spill. My companion Alexei collects a sample here.
Next, we visit the oldest part of the diamond enterprise: concentrating mill #3, from where, joined by factory chief Dmitry Alexandrovich Kobelev, we continue on to the tailing pond, a closed facility. To the left of the road leading to the tailing pond, there is a pipeline of impressive diameter, which, we are explained, transports pulp of diamond ore from the factory to the tailing pond. On both sides of us are reservoirs with high dams. On the left is an expansive pond with a sandy beach and bluish-green water, and on the distant right is a tailing pond.
As Kobelev tells us, a few years ago a species of red fish was introduced into the pond to our distant right. As he tells it, all the fish were eventually caught by net, as the water of the pond is saturated with salts in about the same concentration as the sea, which makes species of freshwater fish unable to reproduce. We collect a sample here.
I want to note, that in all the places where we took water samples, our visual observations are inconclusive. In some places the water looked rather dirty, and in others it was significantly cleaner. Questions about contamination and chemical composition of the water can only be determined through comprehensive analysis, which we hope to achieve with the help of the activist movement to defend the river of our homeland, the Vilyuy river.
Our hosts at the ALROSA Mirny diamond mine kindly offer to take us on a visit to the dredge the next day, but we decline, because this site has already been visited by numerous activist delegations from the nearby village of Suntar, as well as the capital Yakutsk. Additionally, we know that photos and video are prohibited at this location.
At five in the evening, caught in a downpour that seemed as if it was there to stay, we returned to the village of Suntar for the night. We had a long trip awaiting us the next day, as the journey back to Yakutsk through the Vilyuy-adjacent uluuses is dependent upon travel by car ferry: there are five such crossings along the dirt road from Mirny to Yakutsk.
So ends the brief recounting of our road trip. When I arrive back in Yakutsk, I’ll write in more detail, including an interview with representatives from ALROSA diamond company, whose slogan is «People are more valuable than diamonds.» Let’s see how that slogan corresponds to the truth.