Russia’s War Could Cause Environmental Disasters in Ukraine

During a lull between air raid warnings earlier this month, Iryna Nikolaieva sat in a stairwell of a Kyiv bomb shelter where she had been living for three days and called engineers at two chemical plants near the front lines in the country’s east. Nikolaiva was an expert in hazardous waste and worried about fighting close to the facilities, which could cause damage to earthen dams that hold back hundreds of thousands or tons of chemical sludge. This would lead her to a devastating accident.

One manager from the site said that things were 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 how the storage sites were holding up. “They said they could not get there because of active hostilities,” says Nikolaieva, speaking from Warsaw, where she fled after nine days living in the bomb shelter 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 of others trapped under Russian shelling in cities like Mariupol. The fighting is also creating new environmental hazards, which threaten to add to the war’s human cost. Some of those environmental risks, like a release of radiation from one of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, could have immediate and devastating consequences. Other environmental risks, such as the release of radiation from a Ukrainian nuclear power plant, can have long-term consequences. These effects could reverberate for many years or decades, even after the fighting ceases.

“Civilians depend on their immediate surroundings and the environment,” says Richard Pearshouse, the director of the environment and human rights division of Human Rights Watch. “It’s no longer sufficient to think of the environment as an afterthought to conflict.”

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All wars create devastating environmental threats for civilians, but the fighting in Ukraine could lead to particularly disastrous environmental consequences because the country is so heavily industrialized, particularly in the east, considered to be Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Much of that infrastructure—steel plants in the eastern Donets Basin, chemical facilities near cities like Kyiv and Korosten, and weapons factories, including facilities to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles—was developed in the Soviet era, with some having fallen into disrepair or mismanagement in recent years. The risks associated with such facilities can also be greatly altered by warfare. While some hazards may be manageable under normal conditions, they can cause serious injury or death if the facility is damaged by bombs and shelling. One example is hydropower dams that could collapse and flood entire villages and towns. 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.

The facility could especially be vulnerable to destruction, which could lead to catastrophic consequences. The Toresk facility has two huge man-made toxic waste ponds, each emitting sickly-sweet phenol fumes, along with gaseous naphthalene and formaldehyde (even standing nearby is enough to cause nausea and dizziness, and to irritate visitors’ throats and eyes). Nikolaieva conducted a government-sponsored audit at the facility in 2019, and found that one of the dams holding back more than a quarter million tons of chemical sludge had “obvious” signs of instability.

She concluded that fighting with Russia-backed rebels risked setting off a chain reaction disaster—shelling could breach one of the storage ponds and send thousands of tons of waste racing downhill, flooding an even larger 8 million ton, man-made lake filled with chemical byproducts below. This surge could cause a tsunami of toxic chemicals to flood the Zalizna River, contaminating the water supply and knocking down bridges. “People will die if it’s the only water that they can drink,” Nikolaieva says. “Maybe for one week [they will be] okay, and then your organs will be poisoned; the liver first.”

Notably, a lot of this poison would run downstream to the SeverskyDonets river and then into Russia. “I would like to inform Russians and say we will have our chemicals in the water taps,” Nikolaieva says.

It is likely that the war in Ukraine will have less noticeable effects on the local environment and health of those who live there. Even when fighting does not take place near industrial sites, it could still pose new risks, such as groundwater contamination from fuel spilled or chemical and heavy metals left over from the use of weapons. Many of the effects of environmental damage may only become apparent in the years after fighting ends—like carcinogenic dust and debris that could cause cancers (like those affecting 9/11 first responders) in survivors of shelling attacks. If a large-scale disaster occurs, war can only increase its severity by not allowing adequate warnings and containment measures to be taken.

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Nuclear facilities are a prime example, particularly after Russian forces attacked the irradiated Chernobyl exclusion zone early in the fighting, and fought over the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the county’s southeast earlier this month, sparking a fire at the facility. Two Ukrainian radiobiologists, Olena Pareniuk (in Kyiv) and Kateryna Shavanova who are both experts in Chernobyl have spoken out to TIME. Pareniuk is in Ukraine while Shavanova is nearby Chernivtsi. If the massive arc-shaped steel shelter built to confine the remains of Chernobyl’s No. Radioactive dust could be spread across the region if the No. 4 reactor is broken down. And an accident at Zaporizhzhia, which houses an amount of nuclear material equivalent to 20 Chernobyls, could be even more disastrous than the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, since the ongoing war could make it all but impossible to mount an effective cleanup response (it took about 500,000 “liquidators” recruited from around the USSR to contain the Chernobyl disaster).

“No one with common sense would enter the territory of a nuclear plant with artillery weapons,” Pareniuk and Shavanova write over email. “For us…such behavior does not even fit into our understanding of the world. It’s as if the river flowed up in the sky by itself or the sky turned orange.”

Ukraine’s environmental protection ministry has made attempts to catalog the environmental damage caused by Russian attacks. Some NGOs also worked remotely in order to map environmental dangers and warn the population.

For now, in the midst of the fighting, it’s hard to see the real extent of environmental contamination—though numerous reports of bombed industrial plants aren’t a good sign. “We don’t even know what number of square kilometers [of land] have been destroyed,” says Tetiana Omelianenko, a waste management consultant based in Kyiv. Local residents can now report incidents related to the environment during the conflict via online portals. “After the end of the war, it will be evaluated and published,” Omelianenko says. “Only after that can we do some estimations [of environmental damage].”

But until fighting stops, Ukraine’s environmental experts can only do so much. Since getting to 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 ongoing attacks, has divided her time between volunteering and continuing her environmental consulting work (“More or less, I have a strong nervous system,” she says). She is surveying Ukrainian waste management companies to try and predict what will happen if the fighting shuts down their operations, and she’s planning to help revise a green action plan for the city of Kyiv after the fighting ends, 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 ends,” Omelianenko says, “I’ll need to grow flowers in my garden.”

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