Thursday, June 4, 2015

City in Russia Unable to Kick Asbestos Habit

ASBEST, Russia — This city of about 70,000 people on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains is a pleasant enough place to live except for one big drawback: when the wind picks up, clouds of carcinogenic dust blow through.
Asbest means asbestos in Russian, and it is everywhere here. Residents describe layers of it collecting on living room floors. Before they take in the laundry from backyard lines, they first shake out the asbestos. “When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,” said Tamara A. Biserova, a retiree. So much dust blows against her windows, she said, that “before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.”
The town is one center of Russia’s asbestos industry, which is stubbornly resistant to shutting asbestos companies and phasing in substitutes for the cancer-causing fireproofing product.
In the United States and most developed economies, asbestos is handled with extraordinary care. Until the 1970s, the fibrous, silicate mineral was used extensively in fireproofing and insulating buildings in America, among other uses, but growing evidence of respiratory ailments due to asbestos exposure led to limits. Laws proscribe its use and its disposal and workers who get near it wear ventilators and protective clothes. The European Union and Japan have also banned asbestos. (A town called Asbestos in Quebec, Canada, has stopped mining asbestos, though it hasn’t changed its name.)
Retirees living in Asbest, including Tamara A. Biserova, center, and Nina A. Zubkova, right.CreditOlga Kravets for The New York Times 
But not here, where every weekday afternoon miners set explosions in a strip mine owned by the Russian mining company Uralasbest. The blasts send huge plumes of asbestos fiber and dust into the air. Asbest is one of the more extreme examples of the environmental costs of modern Russia’s deep reliance on mining.
“Every normal person is trying to get out of here,” Boris Balobanov, a former factory employee, now a taxi driver, explained. “People who value their lives leave. But I was born here and have no place else to go.”
Of the half-dozen people interviewed who worked at the factory or mine, all had a persistent cough, a symptom of exposure to what residents call “the white needles.” Residents also describe strange skin ailments. Doctors interviewed at a dermatology ward say the welts arise from inflammation caused by asbestos.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is a branch of the World Health Organization, is in the midst of a multiyear study of asbestos workers in Asbest. Because of the large number of people exposed in the city, the researchers are using the location to determine whether the asbestos causes ailments other than lung cancer, including ovarian cancer. “All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans,” the group said.
Standing on the rim of the world’s largest open pit asbestos mine provides a panoramic scene. Opened in the late 1800s, it is about half the size of the island of Manhattan and the source of untold tons of asbestos. The pit descends about 1,000 feet down slopes created by terraced access roads. Big mining trucks haul out fibrous, gray, raw asbestos.
The Uralasbest mine is so close by that a few years ago the mayor’s office and the company relocated residents from one outlying area to expand its gaping pit.
So entwined is the life of the town with this pit that many newlyweds pose on a viewing platform on the rim to have their pictures taken. The city has a municipal anthem called “Asbestos, my city and my fate.” In 2002, the City Council adopted a new flag: white lines, symbolizing asbestos fibers, passing through a ring of flame. A billboard put up by Uralasbest in Asbest proclaims “Asbestos is our Future.”
The class-action lawsuits that demolished asbestos companies in the United States are not possible in Russia’s weak judicial system, which favors powerful producers. Russia, which has the world’s largest geological reserves of asbestos, mines about a million tons of asbestos a year and exports about 60 percent of it. Demand is still strong for asbestos in China and India, where it is used in insulation and building materials. The Russian Chrysotile Association, an asbestos industry trade group, reports that annual sales total about 18 billion rubles, or $540 million. And the business is growing, mostly because other countries are getting out of the business.
The mine and the factory Uralasbest owns are the principal employers. The town depends on the jobs that mining asbestos and making asbestos products bring. Nationwide, the industry employs 38,500 Russians directly while about 400,000 people depend on the factories and mines for their livelihood, if supporting businesses in the mining towns are counted. About 17 percent of Asbest residents work in the industry.
Asbest is a legacy of the philosophy known as gigantism in Soviet industrial planning. Many cities wound up with only one, huge factory like this town’s sprawling asbestos plant. The cities, known as monotowns, were an important engine of the economy. A Russian government study counted 467 cities and 332 smaller towns that depend on a single factory or mine. A total of 25 million people out of Russia’s population of 142 million people live in towns with only one main industry that cannot close, even if it is polluting.
In a sign of just how scarce other employment options are in Asbest, a guard requires cars leaving the factory to open their trunks, lest anyone try to steal scrap metal for resale. That is about the only other way to make a meager living in Russia’s old industrial towns.
The trade association says that the type of asbestos mined in Russia, called chrysotile, is less harmful than other types. The United States, though, has tightly restricted its use. The country imports about 1,000 tons of asbestos, mainly from Brazil, for use in aerospace and automotive industries for items like clutch pads. “They consider it dangerous but we consider it safe,” said the association’s spokesman, Vladimir A. Galitsyn. Russia has three research institutes dedicated to studying uses for asbestos.
“As a representative of the industry, I don’t see any problem,” he said. Properly handled, asbestos is safe, he said, and it saves lives in fires. “We are not the enemy of our workers. If they died, then people would be afraid to work for us.”
Valentin K. Zemskov, 82, worked at the mine for 40 years and developed asbestosis, a respiratory illness caused by breathing in asbestos fibers, which scar lung tissue. “There was so much dust you couldn’t see a man standing next to you,” he said of his working years. For the disability, the factory adds 4,500 rubles, or about $135, to his monthly retirement check, which would be enough to cover only a few restaurant meals.
Still, he said the city had no other choice. “If we didn’t have the factory, how would we live?” he said, gasping for air as he talked in the yard of a retirement home. “We need to keep it open so we have jobs.”
A monument to residents who died was made, grimly, of a block of asbestos ore, with the inscription “Live and Remember.”
“Of course asbestos dust covers our city,” said Nina A. Zubkova, another resident of the retirement home. “Why do you think the city is named Asbest?”

Correction: July 18, 2013 
An article on Sunday about Asbest, a Russian city that remains dependent on the mining of asbestos despite the health perils, misstated Russia’s asbestos output in one reference. It is about a million tons a year, as the article noted at one point, not “about 850,000 tons,” the figure used in another reference. (The lower figure was from the Russian trade association’s Web site; the higher one from a more detailed year-by-year breakdown from the United States Geological Survey.)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Leonardo DiCaprio Builds an Eco-Resort

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An Idea Hits the Beach

An Idea Hits the Beach

CreditBenedict Kim for The New York Times 
Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014 in New York.CreditAndrew Burton/Getty Images 
Blackadore Caye is a 45-minute boat ride from Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City and a 15-minute boat ride from San Pedro, the nearest big town. The island has been used for hundreds of years, according to Juan Rovalo, a biologist who leads a team of scientists studying the caye.
It was a popular spot for fishermen, who would stop on their way to markets in Mexico and cut mangrove, using the wood for fires to smoke their catch and the conch that they took from the reef, littering the island with thousands of empty shells. More recently, he said, the island’s once plentiful palm trees have been uprooted and used to landscape the grounds of hotels in San Pedro.
The villas for guests on Blackadore Caye will be built atop a massive platform that stretches in an arc over the water, with artificial reefs and fish shelters underneath. A nursery on the island will grow indigenous marine grass to support a manatee conservation area, and mangrove trees will be replanted, replacing invasive species. A team of designers, scientists, engineers and landscape architects, some of whom have spent more than 18 months studying Blackadore Caye, will monitor the resort’s impact on its surroundings.
“The main focus is to do something that will change the world,” Mr. DiCaprio said. “I couldn’t have gone to Belize and built on an island and done something like this, if it weren’t for the idea that it could be groundbreaking in the environmental movement.”
An avid scuba diver, Mr. DiCaprio first visited Belize in 2005 to swim its barrier reef. “As soon as I got there, I fell in love,” Mr. DiCaprio said. “Belize is truly unique. It has the second largest coral reef system in the world, and it has some of the most biodiverse marine life, like the manatee population and almost every species of fish you can imagine. Then there are the Mayan temples and the culture.”
He soon purchased Blackadore Caye for $1.75 million with Jeff Gram, the owner of Cayo Espanto Island Resort, a luxury vacation spot on another private island in Belize, where prices in April for two guests ranged from about $1,695 to $2,295 a night, according to its website. Mr. Gram said he would bring his experience in owning and operating island resorts to the new venture. “As for Blackadore,” he said, “I believe that it will be an incredible private island that will set the mark for all future island developments.”
Mr. DiCaprio said it had taken him 10 years to find the right development partner; a deal with Four Seasons Hotels fell through. “My goal was always the fact that I wanted to create something not just environmental, but restorative,” he said. “A showcase for what is possible.”
Restorative Islands L.L.C., which is owned by Mr. Scialla, will build the resort at Blackadore Caye, and Restorative Hospitality, a division of Delos, will be its operator.
Founded by Mr. Scialla when he was a partner at Goldman Sachs, Delos is best known for its health-centric development at 66 East 11th Street. The five-unit condominium, where a penthouse is on the market for $39.8 million, has several features designed to encourage good health, including vitamin C-infused showers, kitchens outfitted with juicing stations and lighting designed to promote sound sleep.
Mr. DiCaprio serves on the Delos advisory board, along with Deepak Chopra, the self-improvement guru; Richard A. Gephardt, the former United States representative from Missouri; and doctors at the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic.
“The idea at Blackadore Caye is to push the envelope for what sustainability means — moving the idea beyond environmental awareness into restoration,” Mr. Scialla said. “We don’t want to just do less harm or even have zero impact, but to actually help heal the island, to make it better than before.”
Mr. DiCaprio, who sits on the boards of several nonprofits, including the World Wildlife Fund, was an early investor in Delos. He also owns an apartment at 66 East 11th Street, which he rents out.
“We are pushing each other the whole way to test the boundaries of what is possible,” said Mr. DiCaprio of his partnership with Mr. Scialla and the lead architect and designer, Jason F. McLennan. “With the onset of climate change, there are huge challenges, so we want the structure to not only enhance and improve the environment, but to be a model for the future. That includes restoring the island, creating conservation areas where we can hold research conferences, and regenerating the entire ecosystem to bring it back to its original form and beyond.”
The ecotourism market is large and growing, with eight billion ecotourist visits a year worldwide, according to the Center for Responsible Travel. Ecotourism is travel that minimizes negative impact on a location and seeks to preserve its natural resources.
A rendering of the resort. CreditMcLennan Design 
Belize, which is slightly smaller than Massachusetts and has just 341,000 people, according to the World Factbook, a website and publication of the Central Intelligence Agency, is highly dependent on eco-tourism. Coral reef and mangrove-associated tourism contributed as much as $196 million to its national economy, or roughly 15 percent of its gross domestic product in 2007, according to a study by the World Resources Institute.
Yet Belize has not enjoyed the same environmental protections as, say, Costa Rica, which was one of the first countries to capitalize on ecotourism.
“I think Belize, in the past, it hasn’t been as stringent and we have seen an adverse impact, especially near the coast,” said Nadia Bood, who is the head of the World Wildlife Fund’s Belize office. Belize is hoping to reverse this trend and in 2013, developed a strict zoning plan for its coastline that is under review and, according to Ms. Bood, should pass into law later this year.
But while ecotourism is a hot topic, it is unclear if it actually works.
“No hotel can be truly sustainable because you have to fly to get there,” said Jan H. Katz, a senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. “If you really care about sustainability, instead of enlarging your carbon footprint by flying to a remote island and then creating the garbage that they need to compost, just give money to a conservation program.” What people are buying, Ms. Katz said, is the status of staying at an exclusive eco-resort.
Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Scialla look at it another way. Visits to Blackadore Caye, they say, will help reverse some of the environmental damage the island has already suffered. While Blackadore Caye is not occupied — the scientists studying there must camp and pack in their own food — it has been affected by human activity.
“Between removing the mangrove and the palms and other indigenous plants,” said Mr. Rovalo, the biologist, erosion has taken its toll on the coastline and the small dunes that protect the island. “Now,” he said, “a small wind is all that is needed to create a big wave that goes directly into the island’s soil and starts the erosion process.”
Blackadore Caye will adhere to the Living Building Challenge, stringent environmental requirements including water and energy self-sufficiency created by Mr. McLennan, the architect, who is a member of the Delos advisory board. Blackadore Caye will be the first luxury resort to adhere to these standards, and among the world’s most eco-friendly, Mr. McLennan said.
Among the design principles that Mr. McLennan is using is the concept of sacred geometry, in which the proportions of buildings are derived from mathematical proportions found in nature.
“Many of Delos’s evidence-based health-wellness amenities and technologies will be built into the architecture,” he said, “such as state-of-the-art LED circadian lighting and controls that help support optimal sleep at night and alertness throughout the day, as well as advanced air and water purification systems to ensure the highest quality air and water. Additionally, healthy, nontoxic materials and finishes will be used exclusively throughout.”
Almost 45 percent of the island will be designated a conservation area. The resort will be built using as many native materials as possible, and the developers hope to rely on local laborers, who will be trained in green-building techniques.
As for the guests, guidelines will dictate what they can take with them to the resort. Plastic water bottles, for example, will not be allowed on the island. Once there, guests will go through an ecology orientation program.
Wellness programming will be part of a stay at Blackadore Caye. Mr. Chopra, founder of the Chopra Foundation for health and well-being, who also lives at 66 East 11th Street, will spearhead a program focused on health and anti-aging.
The 68 guest villas will have access to nearly a mile of secluded beach, grassland and jungle. Prices for a stay at the villas have not been announced. For those vacationers who prefer their own houses, 48 will be built on the island, with price tags ranging from $5 million to $15 million. Some of the houses will boast both a sunrise and a sunset beach, and homeowners will pay a monthly fee for housekeeping, meals and other services.
Each building will have several functions, with the platform, for example, not only sheltering guests on top and coral and fish underneath, but also harnessing the breeze that comes off the water to keep the villas cool.

“The goal was to create something that wasn’t contrived — a tiki hut or some image of a Hawaiian getaway — but rather the history of the place, the Mayan culture, with a more modern approach,” Mr. McLennan said. “We want to change the outlook of people who visit, on both the environment writ large and also their personal well-being.”

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