Karabash, in Russia’s Chelyabinsk region, is one of the most polluted cities on Earth. The site of a copper-smelting plant built more than a 100 years ago, extreme levels of toxic waste have caused enormous pollution and dire health problems for the region.

Since 1910, when the plant first opened, over 180 tons of sulphur dioxide and heavy metals have been released into the air each year. Forests, rivers, and the soil all carry an orange tint because of the residues from the processing of copper and iron, whose concentration is 500 times higher than it would normally be.

The immense emissions of sulphur dioxide and the particles of highly polluted matter in the atmosphere are responsible for the higher rates of skin diseases, cancer, strokes, and congenital malformations among the population.

Karabash is divided by a large black mountain made of copper processing debris called Black Slag. 20 meters high and more than two kilometers in length, the dust constitutes a constant threat to the population, especially when the wind blows.

In 1970, Karabash was a city of 70,000 inhabitants. There are currently 16,000. Those who have the chance, escape from this hell in search of better opportunities, but many are unable to leave. As a result, their average life expectancy is about 45 years.

A large part of the city, located downwind of the plant, was evacuated over the years because of the high concentration of dioxin. Today, only the bones of this ghost town remain. The copper smelting plant has transformed the area into a living hell.

—Pierpaolo Mittica


Editors’ Note: Don’t miss the work of all the other winners and finalists from the LensCulture Earth Awards 2015. In total, you’ll find 34 unique points of view inspired by the earth, nature and our shared surroundings. Beauty, destruction, wonder and hope—these are timely, important works that shouldn’t be missed!