Fighting in Eastern Ukraine picked up in 2017, endangering several industrial facilities that store or produce large volumes of highly toxic chemicals. This is reigniting fears of a massive environmental disaster on the scale of Chernobyl, a Ukrainian official said Tuesday.
The Avdiivka coke plant in the strife-torn Donbas region is one of Europe’s largest makers of industrial blast furnace coke, a key component in iron-making. The company’s website also touts a long list of other toxic products, including “coal raw benzene, electrode pitch coke, electrode coal tar pitch (molten or hard as granules), technical sulfur[ic] acid, ammonium sulfate, coal oil, phenolates, naphthalene faction, coke raw material for high-structural technical carbon production, etc.”
Several Western observers have taken note of the danger, including arms control watcher Wim Zwijnenburg in the open-source news collective Bellingcat. Now the Ukrainian government is trying to spread the word as well.
» Subscribed to The D Brief? Get the latest top national security and global military news delivered to your inbox every morning. Sign up here.
“If any shell, if any missile, reaches into the strategic [sic] pipes on that, it can provoke another big disaster, an environmental disaster on a scale of Chernobyl,” Iryna Herashchenko, a Ukrainian member of parliament and the presidential humanitarian envoy, said in an interview Tuesday at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Speaking through an interpreter, she said Ukrainian officials routinely bring up the subject when European Union representatives visit the country. “We have brought many delegations to Avdiivka to show them the facility, people from the European parliament, from British parliaments. This facility has already been attacked and fired on several times,” said Herashchenko. “This issue of coke chemical threat has been raised in the European parliament already.”
The plant was in the news repeatedly in 2015, when media reports focused on its continued operation despite the combat raging around it. That summer, its 1,700 workers generally slept at the factory, bunking in basements for fear of nightly shelling. “If there is no factory, there is no city. There is no place to work [in this city] other than the factory. Almost all factories here before are not working anymore because of the situation,” factory worker Vladimir Borzenko told Voice of America. Factory managers said that shutting down the site might take it offline for years, at great economic harm to Avdiivka, and astronomical restart costs might keep it closed forever.
The coal factory isn’t the only plant that might release dangerous chemicals if it were hit. The Donetsk Water Filtration Station, which uses chlorine gas to purify local water supplies, has actually come under fire.
On November 3 and 4, major shelling “damaged a backup chlorine pipeline, which could have led to an environmental disaster if toxic chlorine gas had leaked,” according to a Dec. 12 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. “A direct hit to the main pipeline or any of the 900-kg bottles storing chlorine at the facility could have resulted in the deaths of any person within a 200-metre radius. The following day, the Verkhnokalmiuska Filtration Station, which stores 100 tons of chlorine gas, was shelled and sustained multiple hits.”
“Shelling of critical civilian water infrastructure continued to endanger not only the staff but all persons in the vicinity of such facilities, in addition to disrupting public supply of water and posing serious risk to the environment,” the report said.