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Ukraine’s afflicted environment

It’s getting harder every day to write something positive about Ukraine. No matter what the issue, whether it be the environment, trade or agriculture, all the bad news is ultimately connected to the intertwined political, economic and financially corrupt system that has thwarted sensible actions and decisions. When you peel back the obvious economic and political problems that we see daily in our newspapers, underneath are layers of social, environmental and health problems that are directly caused by this pervasive political dysfunction.

One cannot address any area of modern Ukrainian society without exposing massive neglect and steady deterioration of basic public services. Providing those services is one of the basic functions of government, at all levels, whether it be transportation, electricity, housing, health services, social welfare, drinking water or environmental protection.

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Infrastructure deterioration is but one obvious feature of this accelerating decay. Environmental degradation is much less obvious, yet just as costly, as shown by declining health statistics for Ukraine. According to the U.N. World Health Organization, in 1960 Ukraine was ranked 19th in world health in terms of life expectancy. In 2013 Ukraine had slipped to 115th in the world.

The reality is that there is simply not enough money in Ukraine’s budget to perform these basic services by the various central, oblast and local administrative units. Corruption has exacerbated all these problems and has contributed to the breakdown of civil society, which is unraveling at an accelerating pace.

Waste management is one of the most pressing environmental problems in Ukraine. There is no system of waste sorting and processing. Such types of waste as medical, electronic and electric waste, automobile tires, food and construction waste are indiscriminately disposed in landfills together with domestic waste. Landfills for solid domestic waste do not comply with environmental norms, and pollute the local groundwater and surface water sources.

The number of unauthorized landfills increases every year, currently numbering about 33,000. And that does not count the large number of industrial toxic and hazardous waste sites. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, large amounts of banned pesticides, 21,000 tons were stored at nearly 3,000 sites around Ukraine. They have yet to be disposed of in a safe manner.

By 2005, Ukraine amassed 30 billion tons of mostly mining wastes, covering an area of 160,000 hectares [approximately 650 square miles]. 80 percent of those toxic wastes are found in three oblasts: Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Sumy. In addition, Ukrainian cities and towns generate about 40 million cubic meters of trash each year. Most of these waste dumps have reached or exceeded their design capacity, and do not comply with ecological or health safety regulations, nor groundwater contamination criteria.

Many of you may recall the tragedy of Love Canal in the 1970s. It will long be remembered as a national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for the health of future generations. “Superfund” is the common name given to the law that President Jimmy Carter signed in 1980, called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA, in response to the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

The Superfund is technically the trust fund set up by Congress to handle emergency and hazardous waste sites needing long-term clean-up. The Superfund is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The clean-up at Love Canal, the nation’s most notorious toxic waste site, took 20 years and cost close to $400 million.

Since 1981, the EPA has identified 47,000 hazardous waste sites potentially requiring clean-up actions and has placed some of the most seriously contaminated sites on its National Priorities List (NPL). There are now 1,569 sites classified as NPL sites. To date, after 35 years of the program’s existence, only about 400 NPL sites have been successfully cleaned up and removed from the list. Since its inception in 1980, the Superfund has spent approximately $50 billion to clean up these sites.

For example, New Jersey has 112 NPL sites remaining, and only 29 cleaned up since 1981. My friend Bohdan Ivashkiw has spent his entire professional career working on cleaning up sites in New Jersey, and it looks like he’ll have a steady job until retirement. From 2000 to 2015, Congress allocated an average of $1.25 billion annually for Superfund activities.

As difficult, expensive and slow as the pace is in the U.S., it will be exceedingly harder in Ukraine. Today, the area of managed municipal, industrial and village garbage dumps and illegal landfills in Ukraine is expanding at an accelerating rate. One can readily understand that environmental regulations for such sites, which are designed to protect groundwater quality and human health, are lax to begin with, and hardly ever enforced. The litany of bad news regarding environmental clean-up programs in Ukraine will grow exponentially, as well.

It didn’t have to be this way. Many international institutions came to help Ukraine and upgrade its environmental profile. Between 1995 and 2010, a great deal of technical assistance and billions of dollars in grants and loans came to Ukraine from various institutions, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations. The programs were designed to upgrade Ukraine’s highly degraded Soviet-era environmental state.

The late Dr. Roman Pyrih, a geochemist and mining engineer, spent a great deal of time cleaning up numerous abandoned mining sites in Ukraine under various internationally financed programs. There was considerable progress during the first 15 years, or so, focusing on former military sites. But, corruption, coupled with political apathy, undermined what little progress was achieved in the first decade of independence.

Ukraine is a signatory to major global environmental conventions and protocols, and is an active participant in the “Environment for Europe” process. However, after 20 years of effort, there are few systematic efforts to integrate accepted environmental practices into either its agricultural, water management, waste management or forestry practices. A World Bank report states that “Ukraine’s agricultural sector alone, is estimated to cause 35-40 percent of all environmental degradation.”

The most serious problems, though, are associated with stockpiles of toxic and hazardous wastes all across Ukraine. Toxic industrial wastes, from now defunct industrial enterprises, are haphazardly ‘contained’ at numerous locations. They contaminate the local groundwater supplies and, with each storm or flood event, routinely overflow into nearby streams and pollute drinking water supplies, severely degrade and contaminate the aquatic ecology, and affect the drinking water supply of the numerous small downstream communities.

Just one example of the many serious environmental problems that Ukraine faces is to be found in Kalush, a city of about 65,000 in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. Kalush has grown around potash mining, and is situated roughly between Stryi and Ivano-Frankivsk, on the Limnytsia River, which is a tributary to the Dnister.

Kalush is also at the heart of a massive environmental corruption problem. Several hundred million cubic feet of salty mining wastewater from an open pit mine for potash, which is used mostly in fertilizers, are stored there in a shallow sludge pond. Also, the decaying remains of thousands of tons of toxic sludge at a nearby dump site are seeping into groundwater and tributaries of the Dnister River, the water supply for some 10 million people in western Ukraine and Moldova. The sludge contains the cancer-causing chemical hexachlorobenzine [HCB].

The EPA has looked into this matter and has stated that people who drink water containing HCB well in excess of the maximum contaminant level for many years “could experience liver or kidney problems, reproductive difficulties and increased risk of cancer.” HCB is very toxic to aquatic organisms. It will cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment because it is persistent in the environment and relatively insoluble in water.

Risk of toxic bioaccumulation for many aquatic species in the food chain is high. Chronic oral exposure in humans has been shown to give rise to a liver disease skin lesions with discoloration, ulceration thyroid effects, bone effects and loss of hair. Neurological changes have been reported in rodents exposed to HCB. Because it was so toxic, HCB was banned from use in fungicides by the United States in 1966.

President Viktor Yanukovych threw hundreds of millions of hryvni at the Kalush problem, even giving the area “emergency status” for being an “ecological disaster zone.” But regional prosecutors, local government officials, non-governmental workers and environmentalists in Kalush allege a massively corrupt clean-up scheme. The Yanukovych administration, with help from the company and its local subsidiary responsible for the clean-up of the hazardous waste at the sites, designed a complex scheme to launder money and illegally profit, in the form of kickbacks, without fully removing the toxic waste and cleaning the site according to standards.

For example, the bidding process for the contract turned out to be a sole source award of nearly $100 million, and was overseen by the Ministry of the Environment, then headed by Nikolai Zlochevskiy. A single firm, the SI Group, effectively gained a monopoly on the disposal of hazardous substances in Ukraine.

In January 2014, Ukraine’s State Ecological Inspection reported that 33,500 tons of soil had been collected, stored and exported from the Kalush sites between 2010 and 2013. They reported that the percentage of HCB in the remaining soil was reduced by 50 percent of previous levels. Of course, that figure is meaningless because it doesn’t address the absolute levels and concentrations that are required to be in compliance with health regulations.

Independent tests completed in 2014 by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found levels of HCB soil contamination several thousand times the legal limit. While the Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast boasts some of the lowest rates of cancer in Ukraine, at 223-244 cases per 100,000 people, by contrast the city of Kalush and its immediate environs show some of the worst, at 293 cases per 100,000. Officials at the local clinic say many residents also suffer respiratory problems.

Aside from more aggressive controls on obvious corruption, such as that associated with Kalush, which is but one small example, what can more can be done? On February 25, the Verkhovna Rada Committee on Environmental Policy, Nature Use and Liquidation of Consequences of the Chornobyl Disaster issued a positive conclusion on the draft law 2009a “On Environmental Impact Assessment” that introduces a European model of preliminary assessment of environmental impact of various types of activities that cause adverse environmental impacts. Ukraine has been waiting for this law for over 10 years.

The absence of a publicly transparent environmental impact assessment process causes catastrophic, often irreversible, consequences for human lives when large investment projects with potentially harmful ecological and human health consequences are not publically vetted. This is particularly important in the case of Ukraine, since much of Ukraine’s natural resources and factories are state-owned, and managed by ministries. This is one of the principal factors in widespread corruption – decisions are made without public input by a narrow circle of bureaucrats who are appointed by the president and the prime minister and are not accountable to the public.

The ancillary effects of corruption has led to severe environmental degradation and serious public health deterioration. Today the situation in Ukraine can be characterized as life without control over one’s destiny. The public has no clear idea of what kind of factory is being constructed in their neighborhood, or why children inexplicably get sick, or why the level of cancer is the highest in Europe and why average life expectancy is the lowest among developed nations.

In the United States, it took a decade for the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969, and its associated requirements for environmental impact statements to change the trajectory of ecologically harmful federal actions. Ukraine has been very slow to adopt a comparable law. The Parliament must act to stem Ukraine’s rapidly declining public health and the degradation of ecosystems. Such a law will also help to stem corrupt practices.

Source: Ukr weekly

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