Toxins in the soil, forests destroyed – Ukraine counts the cost of Putin’s ‘ecocide’ | Ukraine
The woods outside Chernihiv were quiet in late August when Anatoliy Pavelko rushed into a 10-meter bomb crater with a trowel and a cooler full of sample jars. He wanted to find out what the Russian FAB-250 bomb left behind when it ripped that gaping hole in the ground in the spring.
Four months earlier, the environmental lawyer was entrenched on a front line a few miles away, shells crashing around him in the uphill struggle to keep Russian forces from entering Kyiv.
Now he has taken temporary leave from his volunteer unit and returned to Chernihiv for a more familiar battle on a different front in the war against Moscow.
The Russian invasion killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians and destroyed homes and entire towns. It is also devastating Ukraine’s environment, an “ecocide” that activists fear goes largely unrecorded amid the wider national tragedy.
“Most people pay attention to loss of life and damage to infrastructure, but many people and even the national government forget about loss and damage to the environment,” said Pavelko, who specializes in river protection. before the war.
Now he and other activists have launched an urgent campaign to map future damage and risk, from toxins left by shells in agricultural soil to chemicals leached into groundwater after bombings and fires, and from forests old towns torn apart by modern weapons to rivers contaminated with sewage after the bombing of waste treatment sites.
They hope to use their investigations to take international legal action and force Moscow to pay cleanup costs and compensation.
“If we expect the Russians to pay for the damage caused, we have to pay close attention to the facts of the crime, and this is a situation where they are not properly documented.”
The environmental risks of the Moscow war were highlighted by a series of crises at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. It was seized by Russian forces in March and used as a military staging post, with Ukrainian and international officials warning that reckless behavior by occupation troops has sharply increased the risk of a nuclear accident.
But environmentalists want to point out the damage that has already taken place. They chose Chernihiv for a case study partly because the Russians are gone, so the search isn’t dangerous, but also because of the intensity of the fighting here.
Its streets, fields and forests provide a grim catalog of the many types of environmental damage inflicted by Russian troops and the contamination caused by different weapon systems.
The city is a few tens of kilometers from the border with Belarus, where Russian troops massed for the invasion and from where they launched missiles. It endured a 41-day siege with attacks that polluted water, air and soil, destroyed natural resources and damaged a key water treatment plant. Some of the effects only lasted a few hours, while others will be felt for years and even more could linger permanently without cleanup efforts.
In the building materials hypermarket Epicentr K which was badly hit and then caught fire, the acrid smell of burning plastic still lingers months later. The chemicals released in the smoke will have deposited throughout the city and other toxins likely seeped into the groundwater from the burnt ruins after months of rain.
Environmentalists captured photos of the damage, which will be cross-checked with company documents to try to calculate how many tonnes of plastics and other materials caught fire and what chemicals they released.
There is medium-term environmental damage to a key water treatment plant in the city, damaged by repeated bombings so that it no longer has the capacity to treat all the sewage brought in after heavy rains.
Officials fear they may have to dump untreated waste into a nearby river that flows towards the capital in the fall. “If the water is not cleaned, people in Kyiv will get crap in their drinking water,” Natalia Mazyuk, plant manager, said bluntly. The facility had recently been upgraded; one of the decommissioned tanks had entered service only a month before being bombed.
An oil depot in the city, set on fire during a bombardment, burned for days, causing respiratory problems and releasing chemicals that will have settled on the ground and flowed into water supplies.
There are trees and entire areas of woods destroyed by shelling and bombs that will take decades to grow back. Their ecosystems will also take years to recover, depriving the people of Chernihiv of an important resource.
“Environmentalists insist that the beauty of nature also has value. People have lost places of recreation, where they used to spend time with their families and they cannot just be rebuilt like, for example, a supermarket,” said Hanna Hopko, a Ukrainian activist and politician who is part of the campaign for environmental responsibility.
“We need generations to see 150-year-old oak trees regrow from their first planting,” she said. “Even my daughter will never see this nature destroyed [fully restored]probably only his grandchildren.
And finally, there are the shell craters in the forest that hold clues to the long-term lethal legacy of even those munitions that killed or injured no one. “There are toxic materials in a crater after the explosion,” said Kateryna Polyanska, an analyst with activist group Environment People Law. “Many land in agricultural fields and these can migrate through the food chain through agricultural production. Moreover, these elements can seep through the soil to our rivers and then reach our bodies. »
In Chernihiv, the Russian army used almost every weapon in its arsenal, from long-range missiles to short-range shells. Their twisted remains are stored at a former industrial site on the outskirts of town, along with the almost unrecognizable fragments of a fighter jet shot down in the area.
It’s the kind of outdoor memorial to the terrible destructive power of modern technology that conservationists hope could also buttress nationwide damage calculations, including areas still too contested for them to be able to. visit them.
Pavelko and Polyanska are collecting soil from bomb craters to analyze for contamination, as well as samples of nearby intact soil to provide a control measure.
The difference will help estimate what is from the bombs and what could be historic local pollution from heavy industry or past disasters, including the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which is only about 50 miles away. the west.
If they can calculate the pollution caused by a particular type of ammunition in Chernihiv, they can also use it to calculate the damage in harder to reach areas.
“We need to know more about different types of missiles, bombs, etc. When you know the typical pollution in craters, you can estimate what might be in other craters,” Polyanska said. “Sometimes we don’t have access to these places because there is always a war going on and it’s very dangerous, but we can assess these things with satellite images.”
While collecting evidence in Chernihiv, they conducted a media campaign to raise national awareness of environmental crimes.
“Nature is part of what helps us recover. And that is why environmental crimes are part of a full-scale Russian war, a genocidal war,” Hopko said. “This is also why we must demand compensation, for this beauty, which our next generations in parts of Ukraine will not see. Instead, we need to find money just to clean our water, clean our land and our air from dangerous toxic elements.
Ukrainians rushed to rebuild areas that were occupied or saw heavy fighting as they sought to restore some sort of normalcy to daily life. The cleanup is inspiring, but it’s also worrisome for lawyers who need evidence. “When we were here in the spring, it looked really awful. But in three months a lot of things have been fixed,” Pavelko said.
“Some of the serious damage, not only environmental but also economic, has not been properly documented. The Ukrainians are trying to fix everything as soon as possible. But you have to document everything if you want to get compensation.