A tragic tale of greed and destruction
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.