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.

Haz­ardous waste

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)

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