A tragic tale of greed and de­struc­tion

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The Rus­sian city of Berezniki was built on a mas­sive salt mine. This brought work and pros­per­ity for 70 years – un­til the town started sink­ing into the ground

This place is safe. That’s the ab­so­lute truth.” Sergey Dyakov is the mayor of Berezniki. A stocky man with a steely gaze, he has a voice used to giv­ing orders, but still has a habit of show­ing his palms when talk­ing in an ef­fort to por­tray a calm de­meanour. He wants to pla­cate the cit­i­zens of his city – de­spite know­ing bet­ter. Just a few days ear­lier Dyakov had per­son­ally au­tho­rised the evac­u­a­tion of 40 fam­i­lies from the sup­pos­edly safe Berezniki in a cloak-anddag­ger op­er­a­tion. He knows the fate of the city: it will go un­der – no­body can stop it from hap­pen­ing.

But how did it come to this? What has to hap­pen for a city to sim­ply dis­ap­pear into the earth?

THEY DUG TOO DEEP – AND PAID THE PRICE

Berezniki is not a par­tic­u­larly note­wor­thy place – it’s home to 150,000 res­i­dents, busy roads, shop­ping cen­tres and play­ing fields. Get in your car in Moscow and drive about 1,600 kilo­me­tres east and you’ll reach this non­de­script pro­vin­cial Rus­sian town. Hardly any­one knows that Berezniki is built di­rectly on top of one of the big­gest po­tash mines

on Earth – a raw ma­te­rial traded on world mar­kets as a key com­po­nent in fer­tilis­ers.

In Berezniki, po­tash salt has been mined for more than 70 years with­out much re­gard to hu­man safety. Thou­sands of kilo­me­tres of tun­nels ex­tend through the sub­soil like scars; count­less cav­erns have turned the ground into a skele­ton. The cave sys­tem un­der Berezniki has a ground area of more than 390 square kilo­me­tres. To put that in per­spec­tive, if you were to lay all of the mine’s salt caves mine next to one another, they’d cover the same amount of space you’d need to build 11,000 five-storey high rises.

But, at some point, some­thing’s got to give. On 17th Oc­to­ber 2006, a catas­tro­phe un­folded. The first har­bin­gers of the dis­as­ter ar­rived in the form of small earth­quakes. Then, 400 me­tres un­der­neath Berezniki, the mine im­ploded – cav­erns and tun­nels col­lapsed in on them­selves and large quan­ti­ties of fresh­wa­ter flooded the shaft. The wa­ter re­acted with the por­ous sub­soil and dis­solved the salt-rich lay­ers of rock on which Berezniki is built. In the north-east of the city, a giant crater the size of 17 foot­ball pitches formed – with walls the depth of a 50-storey build­ing. It was the be­gin­ning of the end. The city sank into the soil – and a Rus­sian At­lantis ap­peared out of nowhere, even though Berezniki is a 23-hour drive from the sea.

Ob­serv­ing Berezniki from the air to­day, the city looks rut­ted and sick – as if it has a se­ri­ous bout of eczema. Craters have ap­peared ev­ery­where, some just a few me­tres wide but so deep that you can’t see the bot­tom. Oth­ers are wider, hun­dreds of me­tres in di­am­e­ter. They formed in a mat­ter of min­utes. Many streets end in metal fences. Be­hind them, ‘the zone’ be­gins – ar­eas of Berezniki that could claim your life if you set foot in them. The ground here looks cor­ru­gated, rising and fall­ing by sev­eral me­tres – lop­sided houses stand ru­ined, and cracks as wide as a per­son criss-cross the city blocks.

Mean­while, unseen danger lurks in the form of highly ex­plo­sive gas bub­bles, which have built up in those cav­erns that haven’t been flooded. These could un­leash an in­ferno in the city at any time.

LIV­ING ON BOR­ROWED TIME

For the res­i­dents of Berezniki, life has be­come a night­mare. The salt mine in the sub­soil ex­tends un­der al­most the en­tire city. No­body knows where the next crater will open up. Ev­ery­one is afraid that their house could be the next to be swal­lowed. It’s a fear that even an

army of ge­ol­o­gists and con­struc­tion en­gi­neers can do noth­ing to al­lay. They might be ac­tively look­ing for ways to pre­dict the next land­slide, but in re­al­ity they’re as pow­er­less as the cen­tral con­trol room set up by the city’s mayor.

Here, im­ages from hun­dreds of cam­eras are an­a­lysed – the en­tire city is un­der 24-hour video sur­veil­lance – but how much warn­ing time they pro­vide is un­clear. Berezniki is even be­ing mon­i­tored by space re­searchers from the Clausthal Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy in Ger­many. The team is ex­am­in­ing the lo­calised sub­si­dence from a height of 515 kilo­me­tres us­ing the Earthob­ser­va­tion satel­lite TERRASAR-X. It’s a process so pre­cise that it can de­tect height changes in the mil­lime­tre and cen­time­tre range.

There is prob­a­bly no city in the world that has been ge­o­log­i­cally ob­served to such a de­gree – and yet it’s a place where no ge­ol­o­gist would choose to spend time. The vis­it­ing ex­perts from the min­ing firm moved their main of­fice to a safe zone out­side the city sev­eral months ago. But why then are all of the city’s res­i­dents re­main­ing in their homes?

NO­BODY IS SAFE IN THIS TOWN

“To be frank, ev­ery house here should be evac­u­ated,” ex­plained Valery Kovbasyuk, edi­tor of Inaya Gazeta, an op­po­si­tion news­pa­per in Berezniki. “But the prob­lem is that the city ad­min­is­tra­tion would never openly ad­mit that.” Quite the op­po­site. Mayor Dyakov and other pow­er­ful politi­cians in the city are of the firm opin­ion that peo­ple should stay – at least in the districts that have not yet dis­ap­peared into the ever-emerg­ing holes. In fact, they are in­vest­ing mil­lions to spruce up the ap­pear­ance of a doomed city, rather than build­ing new liv­ing quar­ters out­side the death zone.

The im­mac­u­late ex­te­rior of Berezniki’s in­hab­it­able zones is meant to dis­guise the dan­gers that lurk un­der the city. If one of the streets out­side of the re­stricted zone is ripped open, it’s filled with as­phalt; if cracks ap­pear in the plas­ter in schools or theatres, ex­tra walls are put up to sta­bilise the build­ing. New parks with wa­ter foun­tains are be­ing con­structed and an os­ten­ta­tious cel­e­bra­tion is be­ing planned for the city’s 73-year an­niver­sary – all to make Berezniki look com­pletely dif­fer­ent from what it re­ally is: a doomed At­lantis.

Which begs the ques­tion – why go to such ef­fort? The an­swer is as straight­for­ward as it is chill­ing: as long as mil­lions of tons of po­tash still lie un­der the city, the own­ers of the mine need thou­sands of work­ers to ex­tract the valu­able sub­stance. How­ever, peo­ple aren’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested: the min­ing me­trop­o­lis is one of the few places in Rus­sia where, de­spite the good wages on of­fer, there are still un­filled va­can­cies. For that rea­son, no ex­pense is be­ing spared on new parks and pub­lic fes­ti­vals – al­though, nat­u­rally, there’s no men­tion of the fact that ge­ol­o­gists have dis­cov­ered a gi­gan­tic gas bub­ble di­rectly un­der­neath the cen­tral fes­ti­val square in Berezniki.

When asked why they didn’t want peo­ple to know, the city’s mayor and the direc­tor of the Min­ing In­sti­tute de­clined to com­ment as they “didn’t want to cause panic”.

DEEPER AND DEEPER The branch­ing net­work of tun­nels and cav­erns un­der Berezniki is eight times larger than the city. Since 2006, the mine has been im­plod­ing – but this hasn’t stopped the min­ing com­pany drilling new shafts. Some are 400 me­tres deep.

END OF THE LINE In 2010, the ground ripped open near the train sta­tion and a freight wagon was dragged into the abyss. Berezniki has been cut off from the rail net­work ever since.

Ma­rina Sipyag­ina Res­i­dent of Berezniki I AM VERY SCARED OF BE­ING SWAL­LOWED BY A CRATER.

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