Russian war could cause environmental disaster in Ukraine

During a hiatus between airstrike warnings earlier this month, Iryna Nikolaieva sat in a stairwell of an air raid shelter in Kiev where she had lived for three days and called engineers at two chemical plants near the front lines in the east of the country. Nikolaiva worked as a hazardous waste expert, and she was concerned that fighting near the facilities could damage earthen dams holding back hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical sludge, causing a catastrophic accident.

A manager at one location answered 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 frontline near the city of Toresk — said he had no idea how the bins held up. “They said they couldn’t get there because of the active hostilities,” Nikolaieva said from Warsaw, where she fled after living in the bomb shelter for nine days with her son, his girlfriend and hundreds of other Kiev 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 shelling in cities like Mariupol. The fighting also creates new environmental hazards, which threaten to increase the human cost of war. Some of those environmental risks, such as the release of radiation from one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, could have immediate and devastating consequences. Others, such as carcinogenic dust from bombed buildings, pose a long-term threat, with effects likely to reverberate for years and decades after the fighting ends.

“Citizens depend on their immediate environment and the environment,” said Richard Pearshouse, Human Rights Watch’s director of the environment and human rights. “It is no longer enough to see the environment as an afterthought to conflict.”

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All wars create devastating environmental threats to civilians, but the fighting in Ukraine can lead to particularly disastrous environmental consequences because the country is so highly industrialized, especially in the east, which is considered the industrial heart of Ukraine. Much of that infrastructure—steelworks in the eastern Donets basin, chemical facilities near cities like Kiev and Korosten, and arms factories, including facilities for the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles—was developed during the Soviet era, and some were in disrepair or mismanagement in recent years. Warfare also vastly changes the risks of such facilities. Some hazards may be relatively well controlled under normal circumstances, but can kill or sicken thousands if damaged by bombs or shelling. For example, hydropower dams can fail and flood entire towns and villages. One of the most dangerous threats is the possibility of a spill of toxic waste from one of Ukraine’s chemical facilities, such as the plant near Toresk.

(FILES) This file photo, taken on December 8, 2020, shows a general view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and a giant protective dome built over the sarcophagus of the destroyed fourth reactor.

AFP via Getty Images—AFP or licensors

It is precisely this provision that can be extremely sensitive to damage and an accident can have catastrophic consequences. The Toresk facility has two huge man-made ponds for toxic waste, each of which emits sickly sweet phenolic fumes along with gaseous naphthalene and formaldehyde (even standing near it is enough to cause nausea, dizziness and clear the throats and eyes of visitors. irritate). Nikolaieva conducted a government-sponsored audit at the facility in 2019 and found that one of the dams holding back more than a quarter of a million tons of chemical sludge showed “clear” signs of instability.

She concluded that fighting with Russian-backed rebels risked triggering a chain reaction disaster — shelling could breach one of the storage ponds and send down thousands of tons of trash, filling an even larger, man-made lake of 8 million tons. with chemicals, comes under water. by-products below. Within 10 minutes, such a wave could breach the levees around that location and send millions of tons of toxic sludge into the Zalizna River, sending a tidal wave of chemical sludge knocking out bridges and electrical equipment downstream, contaminating drinking water for the entire region. “People will die if this is the only water they can drink,” Nikolaieva says. “Maybe for a week [they will be] okay, and then your organs are poisoned; the liver first.”

Notably, much of that poison would flow downstream into 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 the local environment and the health of the people who live in it. Even if combat is kept away from industrial facilities, it can still present new hazards, such as spilled fuel that can contaminate groundwater, or chemicals and heavy metals left behind from used weapons. Many of the effects of environmental damage do not become apparent until the years after the fighting ends, such as carcinogenic dust and cancer-causing debris (such as the impact of 9/11 emergency responders) on shelling survivors. And if a major disaster strikes, the war will only make matters worse by preventing containment efforts or adequate warnings to the affected population.

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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 earlier this month fought over the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in the southeastern province, sparking a fire at the facility. A major accident at both sites could have huge consequences for Ukraine, the wider region or even the entire hemisphere, say Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova, two Ukrainian radiobiologists with extensive experience in Chernobyl, who corresponded together with TIME (Shavanova is in Kiev while Pareniuk is located near Chernivtsi, Ukraine). If the massive arc-shaped steel shelter built to contain the remains of Chernobyl reactor No. 4 is damaged, it could spread radioactive dust across the region. And an accident in Zaporizhzhya, which contains an amount of nuclear material equivalent to 20 Chernobyl, could be even more disastrous than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, as the ongoing war could make it virtually impossible to mount an effective cleanup operation. (it took about 500,000 “liquidators” recruited from all over the USSR to contain the Chernobyl disaster).

“No one in their right mind would enter the territory of a nuclear power plant with artillery weapons,” Pareniuk and Shavanova wrote via email. “To us… such behavior doesn’t even fit our understanding of the world. It’s as if the river flows into the air by itself or turns the sky orange.”

Civilians evacuated from Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is located, arrive in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, on March 9, 2022.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images—2022 Anadolu Agency

The Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection has made efforts to map the environmental damage caused by Russian attacks. And some NGOs have been working remotely to map potential environmental hazards, both to warn citizens and to help clean up when the war finally ends.

At present, amid the fighting, it is difficult to see the true extent of environmental pollution, although numerous reports of bombed industrial plants are not a good sign. “We don’t even know how many square kilometers [of land] destroyed,” said Tetiana Omelianenko, a waste management consultant in Kiev. Ukrainian environmentalists have created online pages where local residents and businesses can report environmental incidents during the conflict that need to be remedied later, such as spilled gasoline from destroyed fuel storage facilities or the destruction of an industrial factory. “After the end of the war, it will be evaluated and published,” Omelianenko said. “Only then can we make estimates [of environmental damage]†

But as long as the fighting doesn’t stop, there’s not much Ukrainian environmentalists can do. Since arriving in Poland, Nikolaieva has worked unpaid for the Ukrainian government, preparing information about the locations of toxic waste in Ukraine to present to intergovernmental groups. Omelianenko, who has remained in Kiev despite ongoing attacks, has split her time between volunteering and continuing her environmental consultancy work (“I have a pretty strong nervous system,” she says). She is surveying Ukrainian waste management companies to try to predict what will happen if the fighting stops, and she plans to help revise a green action plan for the city of Kiev after 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’s also sprouting plant seeds in her apartment—another effort to prepare for a future without bombs and shelling.

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

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