When the two black SUVs rolled up in the fading light of a February afternoon in 2009, Rich Fuller thought the KGB had come for him. The founder and principal of Blacksmith Institute for a Pure Earth, a New York-based nonprofit, Fuller had been leading a group of 15 around the scraped slope of an open pit mercury mine not far from Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine. A village near the mine had reported dangerously high levels of mercury in its soil and water. Fuller was training people from all over Eastern Europe and Central Asia on how to identify and contain such contaminants. A bunch of foreigners inspecting an industrial site, however, can look a lot like spying, and Fuller has seen enough movies to expect the worst when the tinted window of an unfamiliar SUV lowers at close range.
Inside was the mayor of nearby city. “He wouldn’t get out of his car,” Fuller recalls. “He just said, ‘Get in.’”
Reassured that the man was who he said he was, Fuller climbed in. About an hour later, the SUVs arrived at the gates of a decaying Cold War-era factory. “It was one of those closed Soviet facilities that no one is supposed to know about, and where for years they’d most likely made chemical weapons and definitely made TNT,” Fuller says. Through a translator, the mayor told Fuller that the plant was full of “blood poison.” Could Fuller help?
No one was eager to enter the factory buildings—one had completely caved in. Fuller summoned his most expert associate, Ira May, then head of the U.S. Army’s environmental remediation program. A few days later, they returned to the site to check it out. (The location of the plant, the city, and mayor’s name have been withheld from this account because hazardous materials remain, and also to protect the mayor’s safety. Pro-Russian separatists took control of the region this summer.) Soon after entering the old factory, May saw some torn bags of chemicals spilling to one side. He immediately spun around and ordered everyone out. “It was like, ‘I don’t want anyone in here without a full PPE [personal protection equipment] white suit, and breathing gear,’” Fuller recalls. “It was too toxic.”
Among the spilled chemicals was mononitrochlorobenzene. MNCB can be used to make a few pharmaceuticals, but at this factory it had been used in an outmoded formula for TNT. MNCB can also be used to make Sarin and VX gas. Both of these attack the human nervous system, leading to cramps, seizures, and a suffocating death. “MNCB’s not a neurologic agent itself, but it’s used to make them,” Fuller says. At the same time, “it’s something that kills you quite quickly. A few grams inhaled or ingested will do it.”
MNCB wasn’t all they found. As they inspected the rest of facility, May, Fuller, and company discovered that several compounds—and dynamite—had been left in the pipes and processing equipment. It seemed the workers had left in a hurry—”like something out of a post-apocalyptic zombie movie,” Andrew McCartor, Pure Earth’s program director for Eastern Europe, wrote later. In all, the Pure Earth team found 2,350 tons of MNCB and 48 tons of trinitroluene (TNT) on the premises. The site, as McCartor put it, was “a toxic dump on top of a bomb.” If that “bomb” exploded, it would disperse the MNCB, potentially poisoning tens of thousands: a Bhopal-scale disaster.
At the time, Fuller could not have known the region would, five years later, become a war zone. But he still felt a sense of urgency about the secret factory. He told the mayor he’d do all he could.
Australian-born and trained as an electrical engineer, Fuller, 54, had been on the executive track at IBM, when, at age 30, he decided to chuck it all and start a new career in the U.S. focused on environmental issues. “It was really one of those out-of-the-box, let’s-see-what-life-will-bring moments,” he says. “I had done well, but I didn’t like the idea of being a blue striper for the next 20 years. I figured I could always go back to Australia with my tail between my legs if I needed to.”
In 1989, he founded a consulting company, Great Forest, which has since become one of the top sustainability firms in New York. Great Forest advises companies on how to save money on energy costs, reduce waste removal fees and implement recycling programs, and achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for their offices. (In September 2013, Great Forest worked for Bloomberg Philanthropies on a sustainability program for its new offices and has been consulted since 2005 on recycling at Bloomberg’s Manhattan headquarters, where Bloomberg Businessweek is based.) Fuller did so well with Great Forest that by the late ’90s, he says, he felt “somewhat guilty about having enough things and wanted to give back as much as possible. I started looking at pollution in the developing world as a thing to work on, and I’ve been really focused on that every since.”
In 1999, he set up a nonprofit, Blacksmith Institute, that’s now rebranding itself as Pure Earth. While not opposed to the Sierra Club’s emphasis on conservation—he’s worked for the United Nations in the Amazon basin helping to establish rainforest reserves—Fuller’s mission is to help kids play safely on the beach or bathe in a river, not save spotted owls and polar bears. He also knew he wanted to serve the poor, because “the U.S. has the resources to clean up its own Superfund sites.” Mostly, he didn’t want to be another nongovernmental organization dedicated merely to raising awareness.
“There’s a natural tendency for people to look at NGOs as advocacy organizations, and that’s not a very productive place to be because you really can’t be on the ground making the change,” Fuller says. “You’re really just trying to help, but not really helping.” Because advocacy often requires being confrontational, Fuller continues, “it’s a very negative place to be, too, which I don’t find very satisfying. You’re calling someone out as being inadequate in their particular position, and that’s not as productive, or as interesting, for an engineering type of mentality. What you want is to be actually out there doing the solution.”
Fuller began a database of places where pollution puts people at risk, the Toxic Sites Identification Program. For this, he hired inspectors around the world; when he couldn’t find locals to do the scouting, he’d send people—or go himself—to follow up on activist tips. Next, he ranked the polluted areas, to prioritize them. And he developed a novel metric—cost per lives saved, as a way to determine where Pure Earth’s dollars could do the most good and to assure donors of the same.
Dr. Philip Landigran, the chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center, says, “Until now, it’s not really been possible to evaluate how many people are exposed to hazardous waste and pollution and to calculate the human cost of that each year. And that’s something remarkable that Blacksmith’s done.” Landigran, 72, spent a decade at the Centers for Disease Control and is one of the leading experts on toxic hazards for kids in the U.S. Landigran, who has joined Blacksmith’s board, says that based on the Institute’s calculations, three times as many people die from pollution-related causes annually than perish from tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria combined. (Pure Earth relied on World Health Organization data. A summary of their study is here [pdf].)
“It’s a figure around 8.4 million,” Landigran says. “That’s one in seven deaths around the world.” And this is why Fuller gets so passionate, Landigran says, “because it’s finite—it can be fixed. It’s not like a disease we don’t have a cure for. He can look at the levels in the environment or in people’s blood and see the progress.”
Ironically, ranking Pure Earth’s data on toxic sites has served as a form of advocacy. “I remember when [Pure Earth] released its rankings, maybe in 2010—the Bulacan River, north of Manila, came out as the most contaminated waterway in the world,” says Neric Acosta. “That made some very big headlines in the Philippines. It got our attention.”
Acosta serves Philippines President Benigno Aquino III as that country’s secretary for the environment. The secretary and Philippine agencies have collaborated on several projects with Pure Earth, from reducing mercury poisoning from small-scale, artisanal gold miners to cleaning up the Pasig River (which is to Manila as the Seine is to Paris) and restoring fisheries in Laguna Lake, the country’s biggest ecosystem. “We’ve worked with Richard many times, always on a project-by-project basis, and now we’re working together to establish a Global Alliance for Health and Pollution,” Acosta says. The idea of this alliance is to attack pollution on a large scale, the way other agencies do disease. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank, 30 governments, and several UN agencies have joined.
In its 14 years, Pure Earth has grown to where its operating budget is $6.9 million (for 2014), and it has removed toxic pollution from 75 sites in 20 countries. Just this year, for example, Blacksmith cleaned up lead that threatened a population of roughly 12,500 in Indonesia. From 1983 to 2006, 32 illegal lead smelters had operated near Cinanga, Indonesia. Soil samples from one soccer field adjacent to a school with 1,015 children registered 49,239 parts per million of lead—more than 123 times the internationally recognized health standard established by WHO. Another patch of ground registered arsenic at 1,744 parts per million. It’s now safe to play there. In Dakar, Senegal, Pure Earth cleaned up an informal battery breaking and recycling program directly linked to several fatalities.
Fuller and Pure Earth have amassed an impressive record of success. But nothing could have prepared them for a situation like the decrepit Soviet dynamite factory.
“Typically, when we launch a new cleanup effort, we start with a pilot program,” Fuller says. “It’s a sort of proof-of-concept stage, to show the local government that we can do it. That something will get done, it isn’t just talk.” For the TNT factory in Ukraine, Fuller again used this approach, raising an initial $50,000 to go back and seal up 200 rusting drums of chemicals. He would then approach officials in the region, at the Ukrainian government in Kiev, and at the United Nations to raise the more than $7.5 million it would take to complete the job.
During this pilot stage, Fuller also recruited outside expertise. In early 2010, he flew to the Midland (Mich.) headquarters of Dow Chemical to see if it could help with the MNCB. After a series of meetings, Dow pledged “in-kind” support, including one of its engineers, Paul van Riet, who was based in Dow’s Netherlands office. Van Riet visited the site multiple times in the coming years. The Green Cross of Switzerland and members of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) signed on, too.
On the ground in Ukraine, Pure Earth had to select contractors who could be trusted not to accidentally explode the TNT and to train others without explosives experience. It held open bids for the work but soon found that many of the local contractors weren’t used to real competition for government contracts. Most of the funding came from the Ukraine national agencies. “Even more challenging than making sure no one was skimming these public funds was getting all the permits,” Fuller says. “That was incredibly complicated, because there were so many agencies and we found we always needed one more signoff to proceed.” The permitting alone took months.
The preparation took most of 2011 and ’12, and it wasn’t until the summer of 2013 that they were able to remove the chemicals physically, at which point they’d identified an incinerator that could safely burn them all. The incinerator “had to reach high temperatures to destroy the toxin without creating a new hazard,” Fuller notes. “They’re called plasma incinerators. There’s only a dozen in that part of the world.” One in Poland gave them the best offer. The second closest one in price was all the way in Ireland—”but the transportation costs of that made it prohibitive.”
“Through the collaboration with [Pure Earth], we were able to bring together many of the world’s top experts,” says Rebecca Bentley, a spokeswoman for Dow. “We hope it’ll serve as a model for future collaborations between the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.”
When he follows the news from Ukraine now, Fuller says, he feels dismay about the bloodshed but also a measure of relief. “If the site where we were operating were shelled today, it’s likely that a dozen people might still be killed, but it wouldn’t be the calamity it could have been,” Fuller says. “It’s just awful that the place is under such siege, but we managed to truck off and destroy about 10,000 tons of truly lethal materials. I’m really grateful we were able to complete the work when we did.”