Ukraine is full of Chernobyl-style environmental disasters

The new sarcophagus in Chernobyl NPP, Ukraine (URBEX Hungary, CC BY 2.0)

After the release of the TV series “Chernobyl”, the attention of viewers was drawn to the ecological disaster that happened many years ago in Ukraine. Still ecological concerns have been losing the battle with political and business interests in Ukraine.

“The rivers are turning red from the chemical wastewater. In the morning, a colourful dust settles on the cars. If you wake up in the morning with a stuffy nose and a cough, then it means that the Coke and Chemical Plants have released something into the atmosphere during the night,” this is how the Ukrainian media describe the situation in the industrial city of Dnipro in eastern Ukraine. According to the World Health Organization, every day 36 people die in Ukraine because of the environmental catastrophe.

At the end of last year, the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources published a rating of the 100 companies that pollute the environment the most. Two-thirds of the biggest environmental polluters are located in the eastern part of the country — there are 30 such plants in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, 22 in the Donetsk Oblast, 9 in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and 6 in the Lugansk Oblast. The biggest polluter is the Arcelor Mittal metallurgical plant in Kryvyi Rih. In 2017, this plant emitted 273 thousand tons of harmful substances into the atmosphere. The second most polluting company in Ukraine is the MMK Ilyich Iron and Steel Works in Mariupol, with 100 thousand tons of harmful emissions, and the third largest polluter is the Burshtyn power plant in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in the western part of the country.

The Central Geophysical Observatory of Ukraine has also published its study according to which the concentrations of formaldehyde in the air in 14 Ukrainian cities exceed the norm by 2.7 to 4.3 times. The three Ukrainian cities with the most polluted air include Dnipro, Kamianske, located just 40 kilometres away, and Odessa. In the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide is three times higher than the acceptable level.

The main sources of air pollution in Ukraine include metallurgical plants and coal-fired power plants. In 2017, there were 220 large emitters of pollution in Ukraine, out of which 175 were entities operating in the sector of coal-based power generation. Local environmental organizations petitioned the metallurgical enterprises to disclose their internal data on emissions but these requests were turned down. The letters sent by the environmentalists were directed, among others, to Arcelor Mittal, Interpipe, Metinvest, DCH and Ferrexpo.

In theory, the issue of pollution should be tackled by a special governmental unit — the State Ecological Inspection. However, in practice this body has for many years primarily focused on small enterprises, carefully avoiding interactions with the biggest polluters, who are taking advantage of the powerful position secured by their influential owners.

Ecological supervision in Ukraine oftentimes proves to be purely illusory. Following a meeting between President Volodymyr Zelensky and shipowners, organized in the port of Odessa in July 2019, a decision was announced that the environmental inspections of commercial vessels would be suspended for two months. The decision was made after charges of extortion were brought against the inspectors. The shipowners and the owners of the transported goods complained that the inspectors were demanding bribes in exchange for positive decisions on the compliance of their ships with the ecological standards. The shipowners that refuse to pay bribes are being held up in the port for days, and even weeks, which generates significant financial losses.

Meanwhile, in Dnipro, the management of the local combined heat and power plant simply refused to allow ecological inspectors to enter its premises for several years. Their justification was that the plant belongs to a capital group, and since the ecological inspection had already inspected a different power plant belonging to that group, then they had no right to inspect the other plants for three years. When the inspectors finally entered the power plant, they detected 33 violations.

Protected status of the coal sector

In 2017, the Ukrainian government decided to introduce a program aimed at reducing emissions from coal-fired power plants. “For Ukraine reducing the emissions of harmful substances into the atmosphere is not only an important project associated with the country’s European integration. This is primarily about the life and health of our citizens. It is understandable that Ukrainian companies will not reduce their harmful emissions overnight. Because of that a plan was developed that provides a transitional period for these entities,” said Ostap Semerak, the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine.

In exchange for a postponement of the implementation of the European Union’s Directive 2010/75/ЕС, the plant operators, which include the country’s biggest polluters, pledged to voluntarily reduce their emissions. Over a period of 16 years, starting from January 2018, they will be gradually reducing their harmful emissions and moving towards compliance with the EU norms. When it comes to the emissions of dust and sulphur dioxide, the deadline for achieving the EU required levels was set for December 2028. Meanwhile, in relation to nitrogen oxides, the deadline was set for December 2033. After the deadlines companies operating in Ukraine will have to fulfil the requirements of the EU Directive. The plan itself was included in the Energy Strategy of Ukraine for the period until 2035 — the main governmental document describing the plans for the development of the country’s energy sector — and in the action plan on the implementation of the association agreement between the European Union and Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has pointed out that the plan is important not only for the environment, but also for Ukraine’s energy security, and that it was devised in a manner consistent with the EU directives, which Ukraine is obliged to implement within the framework of its association with the EU. It was also pointed out that Ukraine is a member of the Energy Community, and should fulfil its obligations within the framework of that organization.

However, in late July 2019 the Ukrainian citizens and the EU were unpleasantly surprised by the outgoing government of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman. The cabinet decided to suspend the implementation of the plan aimed at reducing the emissions of coal-fired power plants. As a result of this decision, the EU directive, as well as the obligations resulting from it, were rendered meaningless. Meanwhile, the European Union taxpayers’ money allocated for the financing of the plan was simply wasted.

The government has also announced that Ukraine’s environmental regulations would be amended. In practice these plans would mean that the financial burden of environment protection would be shifted from the private owners of the polluting companies to the state budget. The Ukrainian state would finance the implementation of environmentally friendly solutions in the existing companies. On the other hand, the government proposes a reduction of the environmental tax currently paid by the polluting companies. This means that Ukrainian taxpayers would be forced to pay for environmental protection out of their own pockets, while the business owners would be allowed to sit back and count their profits.

Metallurgical sector under investigation

In July 2019, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) probed the metallurgical plant of the global steel giant Arcelor Mittal. The SBU conducted proceedings concerning the crime of “ecocide” — defined as causing a threat to human life and health through the violation of environmental protection standards. This crime is punishable by imprisonment for a period of 7 to 15 years.

The operation of the security services took place just a few days after President Zelensky’s visit to Kryvyi Rih, during which he criticized the Ministry of Ecology for tolerating the violations of environmental standards by the big companies. “Why should people suffer from this? I do not understand. I understand that it is about taxes and so on, but how much does human life cost? Is it worth all these taxes? Why should the cancer incidence in Kryvyi Rih depend on your strategic plans?,” asked Mr. Zelensky.

The parties assumed strongly divergent positions — the representatives of the company argue that they are fulfilling all the environmental protection requirements, and that they passed an ecological inspection with a positive result this April. The representatives of Arcelor Mittal also argued that they are implementing a large-scale investment plan covering the next five years, which is aimed at increasing production. They believe, however, that it will also have a positive impact on the environmental conditions.

Poisonous fumes

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Kryvyi Rih are pointing out that this city, with a population of several hundred thousand people, is becoming unlivable because of the fumes from the steelworks, and that the incidence of cancer is among the highest in Ukraine.

They are not alone in their complaint — poisonous fumes are a topic of everyday conversations between the residents of the industrial eastern part of Ukraine. Last June, about a thousand people protested on the streets of Mariupol against the fumes from the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, which were ranked second on the government’s list of the major Ukrainian polluters.

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