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Reporter's Notebook: Rocket Wasteland

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shake hands after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Monday, June 25, 2007. Schwarzenegger and Sarkozy were to discuss public-private partnerships, opportunities to work together in the campaign against global warming and increasing California's trade with France.
AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
The Altai region is only a four-hour plane ride from Moscow but it’s a different world. It is breathtakingly beautiful – with big skies and vast grain fields in the foreground, snow-capped mountains on the horizon. This is the region Russia’s space program litters with rocket parts. According to the local residents, the region is also regularly doused with a fine spray of unburned rocket fuel that causes a huge variety of health problems.

Russian rockets are actually launched some 800 miles to the east in Khazakstan, but the second-stage boosters are jettisoned over Altai. They are supposed to burn up in the atmosphere, and the few metal parts that do make it to earth are meant to fall over uninhabited mountains. A combination of bad calculation and technical error, however, means that some pieces actually land in and around three villages nearby.

It is startling to be shown these twisted chunks of metal casually stacked in farmyards and sheds. Even more startling to see the pictures and video of entire boosters and fuel tanks that the residents have found in nearby forests.

The real worry, though, is a fine greenish dust that the residents say comes with the rain after most launches, and forms a film on puddles and ponds. No one has taken samples of it, or had it tested, but it’s a sign to both the villagers and the local medical authorities that there is chemical fallout from the rocket launches. They suspect the fallout of causing an alarmingly high rate of thyroid disorders, cancers, rashes and birth defects in the area.

In America, this situation would have attracted swarms of lawyers racing to file rich damage suits against the Russian Space Agency and the government. In Russia – where compensation through litigation is almost unknown (and usually unaffordable) – the residents of the villages have little power to force the authorities to do anything. Their hospitals are too sparsely equipped to do any sophisticated analysis. In fact, the largest regional hospital does not even have its own X-ray machine. So far, one respected ecological institute in Altai has done a toxicity study in the area and correlated it to disease. Even though the results were deeply worrisome, official stonewalling shut down any attempts to investigate further.

A day after the CBS News crew arrived in Altai, we dragged ourselves out of our beds at three in the morning to watch a rocket streak overhead. Our guide was Viktor Mikhailovitch, a local farmer turned environmentalist, who has made it his vocation to log the details of every launch – and its fallout. Also driving out on the muddy roads that in the pre-dawn darkness were two members of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry, who are sent to check that the flaming pieces of metal fall in the right trajectory and not too dangerously close to habitation.

Precisely nine minutes after the rocket lifted off from the distant launch pain Baikonur, it appeared in the skies of Altai like a low comet, burning white and silent. Low on the horizon, it burst into a shower of light like a firework and we could see the sparkling fragments streaming earthward. Only then, its thunder began to roll and echo around the hills.

This spectacle is repeated once a month, as the Russian Space program launches rockets carrying satellites, space vehicles and military equipment. Each time, according to Victor Mikhailovitch and local health authorities, the soil and water of Altai receive another dose of poison.

There is no doubt that some of the fuels used to launch the Russian rockets are highly toxic. Others, says the Russian Space Agency, are completely inoffensive, like liquid oxygen. However, experts say that even in the most neutral-sounding fuels are likely to contain additives that can be harmful to plants and animals.

Nevertheless, the Space Agency says health problems in Altai are more likely to have been caused by heavy metals mining in the region, or even an old nuclear test site nearby. Its chief ecologist, Vitaly Sambros, insists that the fuel burns up entirely before it reaches the earth so even potential toxins don’t come anywhere near living things.

However, on the bulletin board of the little clinic in Novoaleiska, one of the villages under the rocket flight path, you can see the notices issued by the Space Agency advising villagers of launch times, warning them to stay indoors afterward, and not to touch any rocket fragments they might find on the ground. For about a year, the Russian Space Agency had also begun to pay compensation to the villagers, even though it was paltry: nine rubles, or about thirty cents, per launch.

The compensation payments have since dried up as inexplicably as they began, but Viktor Mikhailvotch says all this proves the Space Agency recognizes there’s an environmental hazard. He has minutely documented what he says are cases of poisoning, and outbreaks of illness after each launch: the day the Stepanovitch’s chickens all died after pecking around the green film on puddles, the way a stream of children shows up at the local clinic complaining of breathing problems and stomach troubles 48 hours after each launch.

He’s paid for his vigilance though. Five years ago, Viktor Mikhailovitch was the head of the local administration of Staryaleika, but when he took on the Russian Space Agency, he was pushed out of his job. Here, in this deeply conservative corner of Russia where collective farms are run on rigidly hierarchical lines and old interests re main entrenched, “activism” – especially of the green kind is not welcome. Many felt it was dangerous to rock the boat.

Now, it appears finally that Viktor Mikhailovitch’s tenacity is paying off. The Russian Space Agency, alarmed by growing international attention and the establishment of a United Nations World Heritage Biodiversty Reserve nearby, has announced it will finally fund a three-year comprehensive environmental study of the villages under the flight path, and take a close look at the local health statistics.

"It’s about time we received some answers", says Viktor Mikhailovitch. "Especially as we know that the Russian Space Agency is trying to expand its rocket launching program and to pioneer space tourism." He speaks for everyone in the region when he says, "We are tired of paying for Russia’s space program with our health."

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