The eco-explosion in Donbas
What the war is doing to the environment in what was once Ukraine’s most industrialized region
Donetsk Oblast is tightly crammed with enterprises that use dangerous chemical substances in their production cycles. If we add the filtering and livestock stations located all along the line of contact that are constantly in the path of artillery fire, this densely populated region is an explosive cocktail waiting to go off.
Just how urgent the situation is, Pavlo Zhebrivskiy, head of the Oblast Military-Civilian Administration (OVTA) states without ambiguity: “There is a slew of enterprises in Donetsk Oblast that continue to operate on the line of contact, such as the Donetsk Filtering Station the Carbolic Acid plant outside Torets, the Avdiyivka Coking Plant, and farms belonging to the Bakhmut Agricultural Union near Novoluhanske. Shelling in the vicinity of these operations constitutes a major environmental threat because lack of access to normal maintenance or shelling could lead to an ecological disaster not only for the oblast but for the entire region. For instance, if the sludge pond at the phenol plant or the dam at BAU’s septic tanks were destroyed, the collapse would lead to hazardous wastes flowing into the Siverskiy Donets basin, causing damage not only to Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts but also to adjacent oblasts in Russia as well as, eventually, the Azov and Black Sea basins.”
Unfortunately, the presence of a military conflict means that resolving many such issues depends entirely on those who started the war. Yevhen Didus, General Manager of TOV NVO Incor & Co. in Novhorodske is extremely worried about possibly fatal consequences. Since the start of the conflict in Donbas, specialists at the phenol plant have not been able to maintain the sludge pond because of constant shelling. Yet this is supposed to be done on a weekly basis to prevent damaging changes to the surfaces of the dam and the leakage of phenol into surface and ground waters.
“Since July 2014, when the city effectively became a frontline town, we’ve lost the capacity to properly monitor the sludge pond because it’s located in the no-man’s land near the village of Zalizne – formerly Artemove,” says Didus. “ATO HQ have given us permission and guarantees that shelling will be stopped, but the other side doesn’t respond. They haven’t given us the green light, although we have sent requests several times a month.
“By some miracle, in the summer of 2016 we were able to partly look into the situation and clear away the southern and western sides of the dam but this has to be done all the time. Otherwise, the waters in these sludge ponds, which are at a height, will leak harmful substances into the Zalizna River, which flows into the Kazenniy Torets, then the Kryviy Torets, and finally into the Siverskiy Donets, the only source of drinking water in the Donbas,” Didus concludes.
Management at the phenol plant notes that the leakage of process waters that contain alkaline substances and phenol into natural waterways threatens to bring disastrous consequences. One of phenol’s attributes is that it absorbs oxygen, so that if this clarified water were to leak into on a mass scale, Donetsk rivers would die. Because the production cycle has been disrupted, the likelihood that the enterprise will have to shut down is very high.
“This clarified water is part of the production process,” Didus explains on. “If we become unable to contain them, the plant will have to shut down. But we’ll still be left hoping that nothing goes go wrong with the sludge ponds and the 7 km of piping. During a de-mining operation, we already found several unexploded shells. If something like an Uragan hits us, even the seven-meter crest of the dam won’t save us... So we are insisting that the sludge ponds be included in the demilitarized zone from which both armies are supposed to have retreated.”
THE ARMED CONFLICT HAS ALREADY DAMAGED THE NATURAL BALANCE OF THE AREA: THE FIRES AND SHELLING WITH HEAVY ARTILLERY HAVE DESTROYED HECTARES OF FEATHERGRASS IN STEPPE PRESERVES, AS WELL AS COUNTLESS BIRDS AND SMALL PRAIRIE FAUNA
As the weather warms up, the question of utilizing the wastes from BAU’s pig farms becomes a problem as well, because it will poison not just the rivers of Bakhmut County, but also its ground waters. Residents of the village of Kodema felt its noxious impact in the summer of 2016: their livestock fell ill from the polluted water. People were told to filter and boil water from their wells. The ammonia content in the Kodemka River was 19 times above permissible norms. Even after the wells were cleaned out, which a humanitarian aid organization did, many of the water sources in the town continued to reek.
“No, we still don’t use water from the river or the well because it stinks of ammonia,” complains Valentyna, a resident of the village. “We buy bottled water for ourselves, but that costs too much for the livestock. This winter, I melted snow for the livestock and right now I’m collecting rainwater. Last summer, our cow fell ill and we were sure she would die. So I’m already scared.”
Yet this is nothing, because the environmental impact was almost marginal, say specialists at the commercial farms. They were able to turn the slurry in the ponds into fertilizer on a regular basis, which they then used on their fields. But the septic tank in the village of Dolomitniy, which is cut in two by the front line, is impossible to maintain right now because it’s booby-trapped.
In order to properly empty out the liquid that has already accumulated for a fairly long time, professionals with heavy farm machinery need to go into the storage