THE gigantic steel complex known as the Magnitogrosk Works was for long a showcase of the progress achieved in the former Soviet Union. The sprawling combination of 10 gigantic blast furnaces, 34 open-hearth ovens and dozens of rolling and finishing mills was founded in 1929, at the beginning of Stalin's ambitious first five-year plan aimed at the rapid industrialization of the Soviet economy.
The plant fed off an iron-ore rich mountain in the nearby Urals, literally "Magnetic Mountain," from which it took its name. The Works produce 16 million tons of steel a year, more than most countries in the world.
Today the polluted skies above Magnitogorsk are a symbol instead of the assault on nature and humanity that has been carried out in the name of building socialism in the Soviet state. The Soviet system rewarded production at all costs, embodied in the worship of "gigantism," the Soviet term for the vast plants, dams, canals, and other projects that were the hallmark of Stalinist industrialization.
"It was production for the sake of production," says Dr. Nikita Glazorsky, head of the Institute of Geology and adviser on environmental issues to the Russian government.
The demand for ever-larger production quotas from the state-run enterprises was accompanied by phenomenal waste and disregard for any form of conservation. Mines in the mineral-rich Russian Far East, for example, routinely extract one ore, leaving mountains of waste filled with other rich metals.
"For 75 years, we said our country is huge," explains Igor Zonn, a noted Russian ecological expert. "We thought we had an endless amount of natural resources - oil, coal, timber, minerals. It's not true."
Despite a nominal commitment to environmental controls, the system did not encourage such efforts. For example, only about half of Magnitogorsk's exhausts pass through control devices, and of those 20 percent are out of service at any time. Every year about 800,000 tons of waste are pumped into the air, says Lev Stobbe, a former top city official and chairman of the ecology department of the regional government. Nearby Chelyabinsk, a center of metal industry, adds another 350,000 tons of waste a year.
Soil samples taken from within 24 kilometers (15 miles) of the Magnitogorsk plant found concentrations of metals, particularly lead, five to 10 times the natural rate, reports Stephen Kotkin in his study of the city. More than a third of the adult population and two-thirds of the children suffer from respiratory diseases, he wrote in his book "Steeltown, USSR."
Unfortunately the ecological problems of the Chelyabinsk region are not confined to industrial pollution. It is also the site of several highly secret nuclear facilities, including Chelyabinsk-65, the largest nuclear-waste reprocessing site in the former Soviet Union. Several major accidents beginning in the late 1940s spread nuclear radiation over the area. Today huge amounts of unprocessed nuclear waste are stored there, officials say, with ongoing dangers of seepage into ground water and Siberian rive rs.
"Chelyabinsk is not only an ecological problem zone," Mr. Stobbe explained in an interview there earlier this year, "It is a zone of unprecedented technogenic contamination."
The same can be said for the entire former Soviet Union. That is the case made in a recent book, "Ecocide in the USSR: Health and Nature Under Seige," by Murray Feshbach and Alfred Friendly Jr. (Basic Books).
"No other great industrial civilization so systematically and so long poisoned its land, air, water and people," the authors contend.
The book contains an exhaustive detailing of this destruction, numbers that are numbing in their scale. For example:
* The Soviets tried to compensate for their agricultural inefficiency by massive and uncontrolled use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Some 30 percent of all produce is contaminated and should not be eaten, and 42 percent of all baby food has unacceptable levels of nitrates and other pesticides.
* The diversion of water in inefficient irrigation schemes has led to disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the creation of new deserts (see related story, right).
* Industrial growth has put 70 million out of 190 million people living in 103 cities in the former Soviet Union in danger of respiratory and other diseases from air that has five and more times the allowed limit of pollutants.
* Almost three-fourths of the former USSR's surface water is polluted and one-fourth is completely untreated. Wastes are killing many important bodies of water including the Aral Sea, the Sea of Azoz, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, and Lake Baykal, the latter the deepest lake in the world and a unique ecosystem.
* The former USSR faces a deepening energy crisis, as oil and coal production falls. This will put additional stress on a nuclear power industry that has already produced one disaster - the 1986 Chernobyl accident - and is plagued by safety problems.
The advent of the perestroika reforms did little to alleviate environmental problems. But it did bring glasnost or openness, allowing the crisis to be discussed in public for the first time, bringing shocking revelations, and helping to prompt ecological protest movements. This brought some tangible results in the struggle to preserve Lake Baykal, for example, or to shut down the poisonous Nairit chemical complex in Armenia.
In many cases these movements were linked to the nationalist revolts against the Soviet central rule, an upsurge that has ultimately brought the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 independent nations.
But with the political changes have come economic crisis and a shift of concerns and resources away from environmental issues. "Now our government has a lot of problems on its hands," comments Dr. Zonn, "and environmental problems stand maybe sixth or seventh on the list. Politics, economics, ethnic conflict come first. The environment is not considered a problem for today and maybe not for the next 10 years.... We can speak about it today but we can only solve it in the next century." This report continues a survey of water issues undertaken by The Christian Science Monitor and 23 other newspapers around the world.