Russian war could cause environmental disasters in Ukraine

DDuring a lull between air raid warnings earlier this month, Iryna Nikolaieva sat in the stairwell of a kyiv bomb shelter where she had been living for three days and called engineers from two chemical plants near the front lines in the east of the country. Nikolaiva worked as a hazardous waste expert and feared fighting near the facilities could damage earth dams holding back hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical sludge, triggering a catastrophic accident.

A site manager picked up and said the situation was under control. The chief engineer of the other – a chemical processing facility with waste facilities less than two miles from the front line near the town of Toresk – said he had no idea what the outfit was storage sites. “They said they couldn’t get there because of the active hostilities,” says Nikolaieva, speaking from Warsaw, where she fled after living in the bomb shelter for nine days with her son. his girlfriend and hundreds of other Kyiv residents. “It’s not safe for people to go there to check.”

Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine has already caused unimaginable suffering, with millions of civilians forced to flee their homes and thousands more trapped under Russian bombardment in cities like Mariupol. Fighting also creates new environmental risks, which threaten to increase the human cost of war. Some of these environmental risks, such as the release of radiation from one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, could have immediate and devastating consequences. Others, like carcinogenic dust from bombed buildings, are long-term threats, with effects likely to reverberate for years and decades after the fighting has stopped.

“Civilians depend on their immediate surroundings and the environment,” said Richard Pearshouse, environment and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “It is no longer enough to think of the environment as an afterthought.”

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All wars create devastating environmental threats to civilians, but fighting in Ukraine could have particularly dire environmental consequences because the country is very heavily industrialized, especially in the east, considered the industrial heartland of Ukraine. Much of this infrastructure – steel mills in the eastern Donets basin, chemical facilities near cities like kyiv and Korosten, and armaments factories, including facilities to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles – was developed during the Soviet era. , some of which have fallen into disrepair or been badly managed in recent years. War also dramatically changes the risks posed by these facilities. Some hazards can be relatively well contained under normal circumstances, but could kill or sicken thousands of people if damaged by bombs or shells. Hydroelectric dams, for example, could fail and flood entire towns and villages. One of the most dangerous threats is the possibility of a toxic waste spill from one of Ukraine’s chemical facilities, such as the plant near Toresk.

This particular facility could be extremely susceptible to damage and an accident could have catastrophic consequences. The Toresk facility has two huge ponds of man-made toxic waste, each emitting sickening phenol fumes, as well as naphthalene gas and formaldehyde (even standing near it is enough to cause nausea and dizziness and irritate the throat and the eyes of visitors). Nikolaieva conducted a government-sponsored audit at the facility in 2019 and found that one of the dams holding more than a quarter of a million tonnes of chemical sludge showed “clear” signs of instability.

She concluded that fighting with the Russian-backed rebels risked setting off a chain reaction – bombardment could breach one of the storage ponds and send thousands of tons of waste rolling down the slopes, flooding an even larger man-made lake of 8 million tons filled with chemical by-products below. In less than 10 minutes, such a surge could breach the levees around this site and send millions of tonnes of toxic sludge pouring into the Zalizna River, with a tidal wave of chemical sludge knocking out bridges and electrical equipment downstream and contaminating drinking water throughout the region. . “People will die if this is the only water they can drink,” says Nikolaieva. “Maybe for a week [they will be] okay, and then your organs will be poisoned; the liver first.

Notably, much of this poison would flow down the Seversky Donets River and into Russia. “I would like to inform the Russians and say that we will have our chemicals in the water taps,” says Nikolaieva.

The war in Ukraine is also likely to have less obvious effects on local environments and the health of people living there. Even if combat avoids industrial facilities, it can still create new hazards, like spilled fuel that can contaminate groundwater, or chemicals and heavy metals left behind from spent weapons. Many effects of environmental damage may not show up until years after the fighting ends, such as carcinogenic dust and debris that could cause cancers (like those affecting 9/11 first responders) in bombing survivors. And if a major disaster does occur, war will only make the situation worse by preventing containment efforts or adequate warnings to affected populations.

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Nuclear facilities are a prime example, especially after Russian forces attacked the irradiated Chernobyl Exclusion Zone early in the fighting and fought over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the southeastern county earlier this month, starting a fire at the facility. A major accident at either site could have huge implications for Ukraine, the wider region, or even the entire hemisphere, say Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova, two Ukrainian radiobiologists with extensive work experience in Chernobyl, who corresponded jointly with TIME (Shavanova is in Kyiv while Pareniuk is near Chernivtsi, Ukraine). If the huge arc-shaped steel shelter built to contain the remains of Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor is damaged, it could spread radioactive dust to the area. And an accident at Zaporizhzhia, home to an amount of nuclear material equivalent to 20 Chernobyls, could be even more disastrous than the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, as the ongoing war could make mounting an effective cleanup response virtually impossible. (it took about 500,000 “liquidators” recruited from all over the USSR to contain the Chernobyl disaster).

“No sane person would enter the territory of a nuclear power plant with artillery weapons,” Pareniuk and Shavanova write via email. “For us… such behavior does not even correspond to our understanding of the world. It’s as if the river is flowing alone in the sky or the sky is turning orange.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection has attempted to catalog the environmental damage caused by the Russian attacks. And some NGOs have worked remotely to try to map potential environmental risksboth to warn civilians and to aid in cleanup efforts at the end of the war.

For now, amid the fighting, it’s hard to see the true extent of environmental contamination, although numerous reports of bombed industrial factories are not a good sign. “We don’t even know how many square kilometers [of land] were destroyed,” says Tetiana Omelianenko, a Kyiv-based waste management consultant. Ukrainian environmental experts have created online pages where local residents and businesses can report environmental incidents during the conflict that may later require remedial action, such as spilled gasoline from fuel storage facilities destroyed or the destruction of an industrial plant. “After the war ends, it will be evaluated and published,” Omelianenko said. “Only after that we can make estimates [of environmental damage].”

But until the fighting stops, Ukrainian environmental experts can’t do much. Since arriving in Poland, Nikolaieva has worked for the Ukrainian government without pay, preparing information on Ukraine’s toxic waste sites to present to intergovernmental groups. Omelianenko, who has remained in Kyiv despite the ongoing attacks, has divided her time between volunteering and pursuing her environmental consultancy work (“More or less, I have a strong nervous system,” she says). She is investigating Ukrainian waste management companies to try to predict what will happen if the fighting ends their operations, and she plans to help revise a green action plan for the city of Kyiv after the end of the fighting, changing cost estimates to account for damage from Russian artillery, with the idea of ​​keeping the city on track for its climate goals. She also sprouts plant seeds in her apartment – ​​another effort to prepare for a future without bombs and bombings.

“When the war is over,” says Omelianenko, “I will have to grow flowers in my garden.”

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Write to Alejandro de la Garza at [email protected].

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