A former Siberian gulag with a population of about 210,000, this decrepit city has some of the worst air quality in the world. It is surrounded by dead trees, as far as the eye can see, poisoned by acid rain.
But to Vladimir M. Stratyev, the eye-stinging haze is an unalloyed blessing, for Mr. Stratyev is, in effect, a miner of air pollution. For him the smog of Norilsk is a mother lode.
The smelters here produce one-fifth of all the world’s nickel, a key alloy of stainless steel, while emitting 1.9 million tons of sulfur dioxide a year, more than the entire country of France. They also spew out 10,800 tons of heavy metal particulates.
For 50 years, a fine, black dust of heavy metals has fallen on the city, mostly nickel but some copper and cobalt as well. In the spring thaw, this soot runs into ponds and streams, where it settles on the bottom into strata that have built up in places three to five feet thick.
Spotting a business opportunity, factory officials have brought in a contractor, Poligon, to extract the metals from one of these deposits, known euphemistically as “technogenic sources of ore.”
Mr. Stratyev, the supervisor of a mining crew, uses a dredge and bulldozer to scoop up the black sludge, rich in nickel that once fell from the sky. He gathers it in mighty piles from a large pond that lies directly downwind from the smelters and returns it to the factory from which it came.
“They should put a monument up to us,” Mr. Stratyev said, standing in front of the dredge he just used to mine air pollution from the bottom of a pond. “We’re solving an ecological problem.”
At the factory, the sludge is hauled to the metal smelters, mixed with ore and refined into pure nickel and other metals, including platinum and palladium. Most nickel is sold to steelmakers, who use it to create the low-sheen metallic finishes so popular now in upscale kitchen appliances. Palladium, paradoxically, is primarily used in catalytic converters, to reduce air pollution from automotive exhaust.
While raw nickel oxides and salts are carcinogenic, they are also valuable. The price of nickel on the London Metal Exchange is about $36,900 a ton.
Over the years, the smelters here spewed out thousands of tons of nickel dust — 1,280 in 1995, a typical year — before new owners introduced some controls that lowered the figure to 800 tons. But even that reduced amount is worth about $30 million at today’s prices.
The factory plans a new, multibillion-dollar effort to bring emissions into compliance with Russian standards by 2015, Yevgeny V. Romanov, a deputy director of the factory, said in an interview.
In the meantime, pollution permeates most aspects of life here in a city singled out by the Blacksmith Institute in New York, an environmental group, as one of the 10 most polluted places on earth.
At one factory, street sweepers scour the parking lot and then empty the dust back into the smelters. Urban legend has it that drunks, rather than collecting bottles for money, put buckets out to collect rainwater, then boil off the water and sell the residue to the factory. Factory officials said that nothing of the sort took place.
A study by the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, considered the foremost authority on pollution in Russia’s Arctic, found that the local population suffered from a number of environmental maladies, including elevated rates of lung cancer, allergies and a skin lesion called “nickel eczema.” High levels of nickel were found in children’s urine.
Yet the long-term health effects remain something of a mystery because the Russian authorities have never allowed a detailed analysis, according to the Norwegian study, a legacy of the Soviet secrecy about environmental health risks.
In another problem for a town that has many, pollutants are lowering the freezing point of groundwater, much the way salt scattered on a roadway prevents the formation of ice, said Ali G. Kerimov, a member of the Norilsk City Council.