In a story that feels extremely 2019, residents of the Siberian city of Novosibirsk won’t stop posting photos of themselves by a beautiful, toxic lake. The lake shimmers in a brilliant blue, which has earned the site the nickname of the “Siberian Maldives.” For residents of Novosibirsk, whose closest ocean is the Arctic, the flashy lake has become a photo-op destination. Unfortunately, it’s also an open-air chemical waste disposal site, as a local power company warned in June.
Searching the Instagram geotag reveals a nearly endless feed of couples’ selfies, professional swimsuit model photos, Russian lads flexing for the camera, and at least one proposal video.
Local authorities are not happy about the newfound popularity of the site, which is not a tropical wonderland at all but a toxic waste depository. Contaminated by the byproducts of a coal-fired power and heating plant, the human-built pond is an ash and slag dump that just happens to look like an exotic beach getaway — as long as you don’t look too closely.
Despite warnings against visiting the site, Instagram users have kept posting pictures of themselves by the sparkling waters of the huge open-air chemical waste disposal site.
Located on the outskirts of Novosibirsk, the third most populous city in Russia after Moscow and St. Petersburg, the CHP-5 (short for Heating and Electrical Station No. 5) coal plant, run by the Siberian Generating Company, has been in operation since 1985. Since then, several additional power units and boilers have been brought on line, the most recent in 1994. With an average high temperature of about 10° Fahrenheit in January, the city of over 1 million residents needs all the energy it can get. To supply the city with electricity — as well as heat in the form of a network of steam pipes — CHP-5 burns a whole lot of coal.
When you burn tons of coal, you get tons of toxic ash. That’s where the blue pond comes in.
Why Is There a Blue Pond in Novosibirsk?
Starting in 2006, local power authorities started constructing a second ash dump for the plant because the original one was nearly full. In 2016, an automated sewage pumping system was commissioned to feed it.
What really matters is what’s in the coal ash. And that question is murkier than the water itself.
CHP-5 burns brown coal, which is also called lignite, a notoriously dirty type of coal. When lignite coal is burned, the leftover ash includes a mix of chemicals including calcium salts and various metal oxides. The nature of the metal oxides depends on the mineral deposits that surrounded the coal when it was mined, but one culprit in the case of the blue lake may be gold.
As Russian scientists have discovered, trace amounts of gold can be found in coal. Once the coal is burned, this remaining gold in the power plant effluent is what’s thought to contribute to the lake’s blue color, in combination with the other mineral salts. As is often the case with industrial environmental pollutants, the exact contents of the effluent have not been disclosed.
Is the Water Toxic?
In a post urging people not to swim in the pond, the Siberian Generating Company insisted that the water is not toxic. However, it’s still not a good idea to hop in.
“But you can not swim in the ash dump,” reads the post. “The water in it has a high alkaline environment. This is due to the fact that calcium salts and other metal oxides are dissolved in it. Skin contact with such water may cause an allergic reaction!”
Dmitry Shakhov, a Russian environmentalist, reiterated this concern to the Associated Press.
“This water is saturated with heavy metals (and) harmful substances,” he said.
But again, authorities are not forthright about the water’s exact composition.
A Deeper Problem Than Chemicals
Regardless of what is in the water, the Siberian Generating Company points out that since the water is as deep as two meters in some places, and the ash is extremely soft, it can be dangerous to walk out into the pond.
In short, it would be like walking in quicksand.
As French news outlet AFP reports, it seems that many of the selfie-seekers understand the water isn’t safe, but the draw of the unique environment is irresistible.
This isn’t to say that Russians should avoid snapping some nice pics by the blue water, but perhaps it’s best to stay on the shore rather than wade in.