I headed over the Norwegian border into Russia today to visit the incredibly depressing town of Nikel, site of one of Europe’s most polluted areas. The town is filled with Soviet-style apartment blocks, sad people, feral dogs, and empty streets. All life revolves around the giant Nickel plant, which constantly pumps out a steady plume of toxic sulfur dioxide. After fifteen minutes, I could feel the particles in my lungs, and I wondered how residents could spend a whole lifetime here, particularly with winters that are marked by months of darkness. Many die young. Most days the pollution blows south, creating a barren landscape for miles on end. Occasionally the wind shifts and the smoke blows north, into Norway, who have offered the Russians 300 million Kr to clean up the area. The plant’s owners, Norlisk Nickel (formerly run by Mikhail Prokhorov and how he made his billions), have continuously turned down such offers.
Norlisk also owns Stillwater Mining, based in Billings, MT, which made me realize that in many ways Nickel reminded me of Butte, MT, near where where my first book too place. In both towns, I was struck with the same sense of disbelief how we could be so narrow-minded as to bring our surroundings to the brink of total destruction, but I also noticed in the citizens of Nikel the same admirable resolution as their Montana counterparts—a noble stubbornness and will to survive when all else has failed.
(Photo credits: Jason Koxvold and H.H. Huse)