Global Economics

Ukraine's Environmental Crisis


Government officials are aware of lax safety standards and environmental hazards, but little is done to pursue offending companies

Late last year, a tire repair factory in the Donetsk area of eastern Ukraine decided to bury smoking rubber waste in the ground not far from its building. The stench lingered in the air, drifting out over nearby villages. Upset inhabitants finally had enough, and, in December, arranged a mass protest near the tire factory's gates. The press came and a scandal broke. In just a few days, the situation in Donetsk was known throughout the country.

Anyone, however, who had hoped that the case would draw attention to the wretched state of the environment in Ukraine and improve the situation has been brought back to earth since then. The factory received a fine, and the controversy quickly quieted down. Despite factories in Donetsk and elsewhere in Ukraine continuing to break laws on waste disposal and management, prosecutors and lawmakers have been slow to react.

"They constantly bring old tires for processing, and putrid smoke hangs above our city all the time," Igor Kolodyazhnyi, a resident Makiivka near the rubber factory, said. "The air smells like cinders and chemicals. Living in such circumstances is simply impossible." Kolodyazhnyi said that although the problem in the Donetsk region is widely known about, no efforts are made to solve it. He believes that the interests of powerful local business groups are enough to discourage any pressure from the authorities. Other regions are also in bad shape, including those still scarred by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident more than 20 years ago.

KNOWN OFFENDERS

The air pollution in the Donetsk area is exacerbated by the fires that are common there due to the presence of flammable material. In January, for example, a large fire partly destroyed a local factory that produces nitric acid and ammonium nitrate. Although the Ukrainian Ministry of Extraordinary Situations cited carelessness as the reason that flammable waste products in the factory's storage facilities had been ignited, the authorities downplayed the seriousness of the accident and did not take significant action.

In this industrial belt, accidents such as these are common, both in factories and in the mines. Officials have repeatedly declared their awareness of lax safety standards and environmental hazards and their intentions to take steps to prevent future occurrences. However, both state environmental officials and environmental activists say those words rarely, if ever, take the form of action.

"Accidents happen because chemical companies and those who oversee them … have become accustomed to the release of fumes into the atmosphere and the regular disposal of toxic waste in rivers," Oleg Kruglov, a specialist in environmental protection with the environmental advocacy group Chistaya Zhizn ("Pure Life"), said. Mariupol, a southeastern port city, has the most polluted air of any city in Ukraine, followed closely by Donetsk, he said. "The main question is, what must we do for the air in the region to become clean again?"

State officials in charge of environmental protection readily admit the seriousness of the problem but say their hands are tied. Sergey Tretyakov, head of the State Administration of Ecology and Natural Resources in Donetsk Oblast, said that "reorganization and reconstruction of companies is the only way of solving this problem today."

Nikolai Kostrov, chief of the Ukrainian State Ecological Inspection agency, said time is running out, however, as city and suburban sources of water, as well as the air and soil quality in cities, have reached critical levels. "At this time the area of garbage dumps exceeds the area of preserved territories in Ukraine," he said. "In the capital Kyiv, the most critical situation can be found at the water purification station in Bortnichi [a city suburb]. All sewage waste in Kyiv heads there. Impurities could break through the dike and flow into the Dnieper River if the equipment isn't updated quickly," he said. Anatoliy Golubchenko, deputy head of the Kyiv City administration, recently promised that Bortnichi station would be modernized and a new rubbish recycling plant would be built.

Kostrov said his agency fines environmental law-breakers but admitted that such punishments, in reality, exist only on paper. In practice fines are often blocked in courts and by local authorities without explanation. In addition, environmental cases remain relatively low on the agenda of the office of the public prosecutor, with economic or criminal offenses given priority.

Without the threat of punishment, or some form of state pressure, companies are unlikely to upgrade technology on their own. "We don't have extra money to put special filters in the factory, or to replace out-of-date equipment. I work and live at the plant, and I dislike the air-quality situation, but I can't do anything," the director of a factory in Donetsk, who asked to remain anonymous, said. He also noted that his factory belongs to a huge corporation that likely has the money to make the necessary changes but has not done so.

IN THE DARK

Activist groups have tried to increase public awareness of the problem, hoping to spur pressure on the authorities. The Crimean organization Ekologia i Mir regularly recruits members of the public to participate in environmental activities like cleaning up the city or planting trees. "Various waste products are gradually engulfing the Crimea, some produced here and others deposited here from other regions," said Svetlana Berezina, president of the national public ecological organization Zhivaya Planeta ("Alive Planet") who regularly takes part in Ekilogia i Mir's activities. "We're trying to show people the need to reduce the amount of waste they generate, to reuse or repair items rather than throwing them away, and to separate waste to be recycled. We also work to teach our children about environmental safety and waste management."

The Ministry for Environmental Protection is working on its own concept for ecological education programs. According to ministry statistics, there are currently 326 departments in both middle and higher education establishments in the Ukraine for environmental studies. However, these programs often use old textbooks that do not cover modern methods of environmental protection, and leave students unable to successfully grapple with current environmental problems once they leave school. Heorhii Philipchuk, the Ukrainian minister of environment protection, said his ministry plans to create centers in every region to provide public information about the state of the environment. "Ukrainians live in the dark ages and don't know what they drink or eat, what they breathe, and what dangers come from the enterprises located next to their homes," he said.

Without public pressure, critics say Ukraine's lawmakers devote little attention to environmental issues. "The ecological problems of Ukraine are actively ignored in parliament," said Kostrov, from the state inspection agency. "The necessary laws and measures for the preservation and defense of the environment and natural resources are not examined." Others say that even those measures that exist are ambiguous and based on antiquated norms. "For successful development to occur on environmental issues, changes in state legislation are necessary," said Alexander Belyakov, a professor in the environmental department at Kyiv National University. "For instance, the Ukrainian laws on environmental information and environmental protection need precise definitions of violations and punishments."

That is even less likely to happen during these dire financial times, said Kruglov, of Chistaya Zhizn. "They have never focused on the environment, and now, during this financial crisis, even less so." The Ukrainian budget for 2009 provides less money for ecological programs than in recent years.

A SILENT MEDIA

Still, Philipchuk pledged to fight on. "Ukraine desperately needs a better ecological code, and we aim to create it this year, together with the representatives of scientific establishments and public organizations," he said. While the need for better environmental protection has long existed, he said, Ukraine "until recently has lived by Soviet standards." Saying the country has accumulated 30 million tons of waste (of which 5 million are toxic), Philipchuk said he ecological situation is catastrophic. The disproportional concentration of industrial companies within populated areas has decreased the lifespan of Ukrainians by 11 years compared with other Europeans, he said. "For example, in the city of Dneprodzerzhinsk, the average lifespan of the residents is only 47 years because of the terrible environment."

Despite such disturbing statistics, the media seldom call politicians to task for their lack of action, and then again only when a particularly egregious polluter such as the Donetsk tire repair factory gets caught or an accident occurs. "When Ukrainians are a little more concerned for their health and for active defense of environmental laws, the situation will be different. Currently, though, these issues are rarely in the media," said Zhivaya Planeta's Berezina.

Alina Horina, a journalist who covers environmental topics for various publications, concurs. "There are always other things newspapers deem more important. Topics on the environmental are only covered when some great disaster has occurred—no one will write about the environment for its own sake," she said.


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