Russia’s war could cause environmental disaster in Ukraine

EASYIn response to warnings of airstrikes earlier this month, Iryna Nikolaieva sat in the stairs of a bomb shelter in Kyiv, where she had lived for three days, and called engineers at two chemical plants near the frontline in east of the country. Nikolaiva is a hazardous waste expert, and she worries that fighting near facilities could damage earth dams containing hundreds of thousands of tons of chemical sludge, causing a catastrophic accident.

A manager at one location received it and said the situation was under control. The other’s chief engineer – a chemical processing facility with waste facilities less than two miles from the frontline near the town of Toresk – said he had no idea how the storage sites were doing. Nikolaieva, speaking from Warsaw, where she fled after nine days living in a bomb shelter with her son, girlfriend and hundreds of other Kyiv residents, said: “It’s not safe for people to go there to check.”

Vladimir Putin’s gratuitous attack on Ukraine has caused unimaginable suffering, with millions of civilians forced to flee their homes and thousands more trapped under Russian shelling of cities. streets like Mariupol. The skirmishes are also creating new environmental hazards, which threaten to add to the human cost of the war. Some environmental risks, like radiation from one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, can have immediate and devastating consequences. Others, like carcinogenic dust from bombed buildings, are a long-term threat, with effects likely to reverberate for years and decades after the fighting stops.

“Civilians depend on their surroundings and immediate surroundings,” said Richard Pearshouse, director of the environment and human rights division at Human Rights Watch. “It’s no longer enough to treat the environment as a potential source of conflict.”

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All wars pose devastating environmental threats to civilians, but skirmishes in Ukraine can lead to particularly dire environmental consequences because the country is industrialized. too much, especially in the east, is considered the industrial center of Ukraine. Much of that infrastructure — steel mills in the Eastern Donets Basin, chemical facilities near cities like Kyiv and Korosten, and weapons factories, including manufacturing facilities intercontinental ballistic missile—Developed in Soviet times, with some falling into disrepair or mismanagement in recent years. War also greatly changes the risks posed by those means. Some hazards can be controlled relatively well under normal circumstances, but can kill or make thousands of people sick if they are damaged by bombs or shelling. For example, hydroelectric dams can 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 one near Toresk.

That facility in particular can be highly damaged, and an accident can have dire consequences. The Toresk facility has two giant man-made toxic waste ponds, each of which emits horribly sweet phenol fumes, along with gaseous naphthalene and formaldehyde (even standing nearby is enough to cause nausea and dizziness). , throat and eye irritation of travelers). Nikolaieva conducted a government-funded audit of the facility in 2019 and found that one of the dams containing more than a quarter of a million tonnes of chemical sludge showed “obvious” signs of instability.

She conclude that fighting Russian-backed rebels risks a catastrophic chain reaction — shelling could disrupt one of the reservoirs and send thousands of tons of waste downhill, flooding the man-made lake even larger than 8 million tons filled with chemical by-products underneath. Within 10 minutes, such a surge could breach the levees around that area and send millions of tons of toxic sludge into the Zalizna River, with a tidal wave of chemical seepage knocking down trees. bridges and electrical equipment downstream, and contaminate drinking water for the entire area. “People would die if that was the only water they could drink,” Nikolaieva said. “Maybe in a week [they will be] okay, and then your organs will be poisoned; first liver. ”

Notably, much of that poison would flow downstream of the Seversky Donets River and into Russia. Nikolaieva said: “I wanted to inform the Russians and say that we will have chemicals in the faucet.

The war in Ukraine will likely also have less obvious effects on the local environment and the health of those living there. Even when fighting away from industrial facilities, it can still create new hazards, like fuel spills that can contaminate groundwater or chemicals and heavy metals left over from weapons. used gas. Many of the effects of environmental destruction may only become apparent in the years after hostilities end — as carcinogenic dust and debris can cause cancer (like those affecting first responders). 9/11) in survivors of shelling attacks. And if a major disaster occurs, war will only make it worse by thwarting containment efforts or adequately warning 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 scramble Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the southeastern part of the county earlier this month, causing a fire at the facility. Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova, two Ukrainian radio biologists with extensive experience working at Chernobyl, said: Olena Pareniuk and Kateryna Shavanova, two Ukrainian radioactive biologists with extensive experience in Chernobyl, who spoke with TIME while Pareniuk was near Chernivtsi, Ukraine). If a giant arc-shaped steel bunker was built to house the remains of the damaged Chernobyl No. 4 reactor, it could scatter radioactive fallout across the area. And an accident at Zaporizhzhia, which contains the equivalent of 20 Chernobyls of nuclear material, could be even more catastrophic than the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, since the ongoing war could make all but impossible a reaction. effective cleanup (it took about 500,000 “Liquidators” recruited from all over the Soviet Union to prevent the Chernobyl disaster).

Pareniuk and Shavanova wrote via email: “No one with common sense would enter the territory of a nuclear plant with artillery weapons. “For us… such behavior is not even consistent with our understanding of the world. It is as if the river itself flows up into the sky or the sky turns orange.”

The Ukrainian Ministry of Environmental Protection has been trying to catalog the environmental damage caused by Russian attacks. And some NGOs have been working remotely to try and Mapping potential environmental hazardsboth to warn civilians and to aid cleanup efforts when the war is finally over.

Currently, in the midst of fighting, it’s hard to see the true extent of the pollution — although the numerous reports of industrial plants being bombed is not a good sign. “We don’t even know the square kilometers [of land] Tetiana Omelianenko, a waste management consultant based in Kyiv, said. Ukrainian environmental experts have created online sites where local residents and companies can report environmental incidents during the conflict that may later need to be rectified, like gasoline spilled from facilities Destroyed fuel storage facilities or destroyed industrial plants. “After the war is over, it will be evaluated and published,” Omelianenko said. “Only then can we make some estimates [of environmental damage]. ”

But until the fighting stops, there’s only so much Ukraine’s environmental experts can do. Since arriving in Poland, Nikolaieva has worked without pay for the Ukrainian government, preparing information on Ukraine’s hazardous waste sites for presentation to intergovernmental groups. Omelianenko, who remains in Kyiv despite repeated attacks, divides her time between volunteering and continuing her environmental consulting business (“More or less, I have a nervous system. strong,” she said). She is surveying Ukraine’s waste management companies to try and predict what would happen if hostilities shut them down and she plans to help revise the green action plan for Kyiv. after the fighting ended, changed the cost estimate to account for damage from Russian Artillery, with the idea of ​​keeping the city on track for climate goals. She’s also planting seeds in her apartment—another attempt to prepare for a future free of bombs and shells.

“When the war is over,” said Omelianenko, “I will need to plant flowers in my garden.”

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