SOURCE: Smithsonian Magazine and The Guardian

DATE: February 20, 2019

SNIP: This winter, toxic black snow—polluted by open-air coal pits—blanketed Siberia’s Kuzbass region’s trees, buildings and roads, creating a series of surreal scenes across Kuzbass’ coal mining towns.

“It’s harder to find white snow than black snow,” Vladimir Slivyak, a member of the Ecodefense environmental action group, tells the Guardian. “…There is a lot of coal dust in the air all the time. When snow falls, it just becomes visible. You can’t see it the rest of the year, but it is still there.”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Kuzbass’ coalfield stretches across 10,000 square miles, making it one of the largest in the world. A 2015 report published by Ecodefense stated that 59 percent of all Russian coal was mined in the region, which then hosted 120 coal mining facilities and 52 enrichment plants. In the same report, Ecodefense noted Kuzbass’ 2.6 million residents have an average life expectancy three to four years lower than Russia’s national average. In addition to lower life expectancy, they also exhibit heightened incidences of tuberculosis, childhood cerebral palsy and 15 types of cancer.

Coal dust contains dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury, the Guardian notes. When coal is loaded onto open train cars for export, wind and rain exacerbate the problem, picking up harmful dust and depositing it across nearby towns and rivers. Crucially, environmental activists argue that authorities in the Siberian region often overlook safety regulations, allowing open-air pits to lie directly adjacent to surrounding villages.

In December 2018, the Moscow Times reported that authorities in the Kuzbass town of Mysky had simply covered up black snow with white paint. A video published by local media showed a woman reaching out to touch a pile of snow and pulling back with her hands covered in paint residue. (The town’s leader later apologized for the incident and ordered the paint’s removal.)