Russia’s War Threatens Environmental Catastrophe
NOVGORODSKE, UKRAINE — In the no-man’s land between the front lines of Russia’s war on Ukraine in the Donbas, there lurk dangers even worse than landmines, unexploded shells and trip-line booby traps.
This industrial region is littered with crumbling plants and factories,
neglected before the war, and in even worse repair after more than three years of fighting. Some have the potential to unleash an environmental catastrophe that would affect the entire region.
One of these disasters-in-waiting is at the Dzerzhinsk Phenol Factory in Novgorodske, a depressed industrial city of 10,000 people near the front line in Donetsk Oblast some 570 kilometers southeast of Kyiv.
Two of the plant’s waste storage ponds are caught between the lines, and are slowly decaying for want of maintenance and attrition by shellfire. If their protective levees are breached, the ponds could release up to 400,000 cubic meters of waste chemicals, sulphuric acid and formaldehyde, according to the Toxic Remnants of War Network, a civil society group that fights the impact of environmental disasters in war zones.
Such a breach could come at any time, with toxic chemicals poisoning ground waters and nearby rivers, contaminating drinking water over a region far greater than just the immediate area around the town.
Plant workers say they’re do everything possible to avert such a catastrophe, often at risk to their own lives. However, they say little can be done to reduce the risk of disaster until the war dies down — and time is not on their side.
The factory is located just some five kilometers west of the front line, which runs between the Ukrainianheld city of Novgorodske and the Russian-occupied city of Horlivka.
The factory belongs to Metinvest, the holding company of Ukraine’s top tycoon Rinat Akhmetov. It says it is among the world’s biggest producers of naphthalene, phenol acids and cresols, chemicals that are widely used in crude oil refining and the organic synthesis industry.
“At our factory, we convert waste products from the coke plants in Avdiyivka, Zaporizhia, and Kamenske,” says the factory’s director general Evgen Didus.
“So all the things we work with are highly toxic substances, like organic phenolic acids. If they leak, their fumes cause serious chemical inhalation burns and skin irritation, and the human body absorbs them very easily.”
On the edge
The chemical plant has a long history — just in July it celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding. Today it employs 620 workers, and is the local economic mainstay for Novgorodske, which is a couple of kilometers south of the Ukrainian stronghold city of Toretsk.
Russia’s war on Ukraine in the Donbas has dealt a heavy blow to the factory, the only major employer in the town, by cutting it off from the coke plants in occupied Makiivka and Horlivka — its principal raw material suppliers. By July, the factory’s production of naphthalene had decreased by half, while its phenol production units are working only at 25–30 percent capacity.
As the war front stabilized from late 2014 to early 2015, Novgorodske found itself just a short distance from the Russian-occupied zone. The city’s Fenolna railway station, named after the factory’s most famous product, and once a small node of the giant transport network of the Donbas, is now the end of the line: To the south, the track is blocked by enemy checkpoints.
From the hills near the town, the high-rise apartment blocks of Russian-occupied Horlivka, the nearest big city beyond the frontline, can easily be seen across the vast fields of no-man’s land, or the gray zone, as it is known in Ukraine.
And it is in those gray zone fields that one of the biggest environment threats to the whole region can be found.
For many years, the Dzerzhinsk phenol factory has been piping chemical waste into three massive sludge storage ponds, two of which are now located right in the combat zone, to the east of the town.
According to a report by the Organization of Security of Cooperation dated Jan. 23, in this area only 400 meters separate the front-line positions of Ukraine’s armed forces from those of Russianled forces. And the highly hazardous waste storage ponds lie right between the respective lines.
“Before the war, we constantly monitored those sludge pits to detect any possible leaks and erosion of their levees,” says plant director general Didus.
“We used to do it twice a week. But now we have no safe access there, and the reservoirs have not been maintained over the past three years.”
Without proper maintenance, the earthen pond levees are crumbling, raising the possibility of deadly leaks. Moreover, a pipeline that was to have pumped excess water from rainfall out of the ponds has been damaged by artillery shelling.
That means there is no way to control the level of water in the ponds, and should the water overtop the levees, they would soon collapse, Didus says.
The resulting deluge of toxic chemical waste would seep into the ground waters, and drain into the local river, the Zalizna, which runs directly between the two waste storage ponds. From the Zalizna, the contaminated water would flow into the Kryviy Torets, then into the Kazeniy Torets, and then into the Siversky Donets — an important source of drinking water for the entire Donbas region.
“It would be a region-wide disaster,” Didus said. “During the first days alone, the local authorities plan to evacuate at least 5,000 civilians from nearby villages. Besides, all of the big cities on the banks of the (affected rivers) like Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Druzhkivka, would face massive water contamination. On top of that, phenol is an organic poison that absorbs oxygen from the water, so the river basin’s flora and fauna would be wiped out. And eliminating the damage would be an extremely difficult task.”
At their own risk
Meanwhile, the factory’s top managers keep requesting security guarantees from both the Ukrainian army and the militant forces so that they can send in repair crews to the sludge ponds safely.
However, while Ukraine’s command has given the green light to the work, the Russian side constantly refuses to do so, without giving any reasons, the plant director said.
“The Russians at the JCCC ( Joint Coordination and Control Center, a military liaison body) simply reply: ‘We have processed your request, no permission is given.’ I’ve been meeting with the JCCC officers and telling them about the possible disaster all the time, with no success.”
Meanwhile, the factory workers make monthly sorties into the gray zone to the sludge storage ponds — without any security guarantees — to carry out brief inspections of the ponds.
“As far as we see, their condition is more or less acceptable as of now,” Didus says. “The levees are presumably still solid enough. However, we’re not very optimistic. We spotted several heavy artillery impact craters right next to the ponds, as well as a couple of unexploded rockets.”
“What we need here is complete armistice — or else any stray shell that hits a storage pond levee could unleash a tragedy that everyone will regret.”
A plant crew foreman gestures over the Dzerzhinsk Phenol Factory from an observation point in the Donetsk Oblast city of Novgorodske on Aug. 1. Nearby, caught between the front lines in Russia’s war on Ukraine, lie the factory’s two huge waste storage ponds. The toxic chemical sludge they contain would contaminate the region if they leaked. (Volodymyr Petrov)
A laboratory assistant conducts chemical tests at Dzerzhinsk Phenol Factory in the Donetsk Oblast city of Novgorodske on Aug. 1. (Volodymyr Petrov)