The environmental toll will devastate lives for decades.
By Jeff Stein and Michael Birnbaum
March 13, 2023
The Washington Post
KRYVYI RIH, Ukraine — Gregoriy Sidorenko watched in disbelief as the Russian cruise missile slammed into storage tank number four at the oil depot here, sending enormous plumes of black smoke overhead and sparking a massive fire that would last roughly 16 hours.
More than 1 million gallons of oil from eight incinerated tanks seeped into the soil, raising concerns about potential contamination at a nearby drinking water reservoir in this industrial city about 200 miles south of Kyiv. Sidorenko, a shift supervisor at the depot, said his family says he now reeks of diesel when he returns home.
Since the war began more than a year ago, tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded on the battlefield while the country’s civilians have contended with a near-constant bombardment by missiles and drones. But the Russian invasion has created a lower-profile killer as well — one that could haunt Ukrainians for years, if not decades, scientists say. The war has scarred Ukraine’s natural environment — polluting its rivers and lakes, contaminating its soil, eviscerating its forests — a circumstance that experts fear could lead to a long-term increase in cancers and other illnesses among civilians. “I live and work here, so of course I am really concerned,” said Sidorenko, 43, who lives a few miles from the depot with his two children. “Being here — the oil gets into your clothes; the dust soaks them; you can smell the difference in your food. It tastes different.”
The attack on the oil depot here is just one of the thousands of reported environmental disasters across the country that Ukrainian and international scientists are in the earliest stages of documenting as the conflict continues. Even before the war, Ukraine faced challenges from highly polluting industries. Now, experts say, the problem is immeasurably worse. The Ukrainian government says that so far, the war has led to more than $51 billion of environmental damage. Many experts say that the figure is, at best, an approximation, but that there is little doubt that the ecological impact will be felt for years in myriad ways.
In cities that have been hit by airstrikes, the chemicals used to extinguish fires are leaching into the groundwater, and asbestos and other pollutants from the rubble of destroyed buildings are cleanup hazards. Across Ukraine, the electrical transformers and substations that Russia has been targeting are leaking heavy fuel oil and carcinogenic chemicals.
And in front-line areas, ferocious trench warfare is damaging fields, forests and rivers. The slow-moving tank and artillery fighting is different from the targeted urban combat of many conflicts of this century. As a result, soldiers on both sides are destroying forests and littering Ukraine’s rich farmland with chemical-laden artillery shells.
History is a painful guide for the future. In other parts of Europe, century-old World War I ordnance still booby-traps the landscape. Experts fear the current conflict is seeding a dangerous legacy in Ukraine’s rolling hills, now turned into battlefields. “The most comparable impact would probably be the Second World War or Vietnam. The intensity of the bombing is totally different from other modern wars; each day, it’s missile after missile after missile,” said Paulo Pereira, a professor at Mykolas Romeris University in Lithuania.
He and colleagues have used satellite imagery to identify the explosion of “dozens and dozens” of bombs over farmlands, raising the potential of heavy metals entering the country’s food chain, and higher rates of cancer resulting from soil and water contamination. “The effects will cascade for a long time,” he said. In Kalynivka, a
town about three hours southeast of Kyiv, a cruise missile attack in March 2022 engulfed three dozen tanks used for storing diesel and other fuel, setting off fireballs that were visible up to 12 miles away.
Soil and water samples taken by Ukrainian officials showed oil-product contamination of between 40 and 60 times the legal government standard, according to the nonprofit Conflict and Environment Observatory, a U.K.-based organization supporting the United Nations Environment Program’s response to the invasion. A separate site visit in September by experts at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy found blackened soil contaminated with burned gasoline, as well as decomposed fish, falling water levels and oil pollution in a nearby lake.
No public database exists showing how many Ukrainians live near industrial or energy infrastructure that has been attacked. But environmental monitoring groups have identified across the country more than 50 incidents similar to the one in Kalynivka, and analysts think there are almost certainly hundreds more. Russia launched near-daily missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure starting in the fall, a campaign that it has intensified and supplemented with drones over the past six months. “We did not look at Kalynivka because it was exceptional,” said Doug Weir, the research and policy director at the Conflict and Environment Observatory. “Russia’s widespread and indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in Ukrainian towns and cities has created acute and chronic environmental risks to people and ecosystems.”
The threat to human health has alarmed scientists because of the scale of the urban destruction. Dozens of cities and towns in Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the east have been pulverized by shelling, with many entirely leveled into wasteland and some even rendered uninhabitable. In Izyum, in the country’s northeast, chunks of buildings struck by artillery months earlier remained strewn on the ground for miles, on city block after city block. The formerly populous coastal city of Mariupol also was shredded by persistent bombing campaigns as Russia seized it last year.
This destruction can be hazardous. Chemicals used to put out fires can linger in the rubble or seep into the ground, Ukrainian officials say. Soviet-era buildings often used asbestos as a fireproof construction material, so cleanup crews face exposure to its cancer-causing fibers and other dangerous pulverized building material as they do their work. Asbestos exposure can cause cancer in the colon, and the lungs and other organs. Olivia Nielson and Dave Hodgkin, of Miyamoto International, a global disaster management firm, have written that the war’s destruction of buildings has generated “millions of tons of highly hazardous, asbestos-contaminated rubble.”
Many of the energy facilities being hit contain heavy fuel oil, asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are carcinogenic, according to the U.N. Environment Program. PAX, a Dutch group that works to protect civilians in conflict zones, says it has documented at least 126 strikes on energy and fuel sites, including some in which oil spills appear to be visible from space, as at the Vuhlehirska Power Plant, Ukraine’s second-largest, which was captured by Russian forces in July. “There’s exposure to toxins and chemicals, but also in the long term, because of damage to water infrastructure, which leads to diseases, and also a collapse of environmental governance itself,” said Wim Zwijnenburg, a researcher for PAX.
In the southern city of Mykolaiv, which for months was on the front lines of the war, the Conflict and Environment Observatory documented repeated attacks on facilities that line the Pivdennyi Buh river, which runs through the city. Strikes hit an alumina refinery and damaged warehouses containing fuel and caustic soda, potentially leaking highly alkaline bauxite residue into the waterway. The pollutant makes its way into fish and can destroy cropland. A bulk carrier ship hit repeatedly while in port now lies abandoned in the middle of the river. With the city’s water treatment network damaged, raw sewage flowed into the Pivdennyi Buh for weeks in June and July. And an October drone attack on a port terminal led to two tanks of sunflower oil leaking into the river, creating a slick that stretched for more than a mile and, local media reported, killed birds and fish. Because the oil can solidify and kill wildlife beneath it, it can leave a legacy for decades, the group said. “In the regions affected by hostilities, there has been pollution by petroleum products, by heavy metals,” said Mariia
Shpanchyk, the head of water monitoring at the State Agency of Water Resources, of the country’s water supplies.
Elsewhere, the conflict appears to be taxing Ukraine’s natural resources on such a large scale that it could have a significant ecological impact. In one of the most prominent examples, the water level of the Kakhovka Reservoir, a major source of drinking water in southern Ukraine about the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, plunged for two months starting in December and is now at its lowest level in decades. The reservoir is formed by a hydroelectric power plant, the final of a series on the Dnieper River, which courses through the heart of Ukraine. Access to the water was a top Russian strategic objective in last year’s invasion: The Kremlin wanted to restore a supply to Crimea that was cut off after Moscow’s seizure of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.
Now the reservoir forms a front line. Ukrainian officials say that as Russian forces retreated across the hydroelectric power plant in November, gates on the Russian-controlled side of the dam were opened to allow water to rush out, draining it. The water level in the reservoir dropped two meters between December and mid-February before recovering slightly, according to data from Theia, a French governmental organization that monitors water levels with satellites.
The exact motivation remains unclear, because the reduced water supply will affect both sides of the front lines. But no matter the reason, the impact is plain to see as the shoreline retreats — including from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which uses the reservoir’s waters to cool its reactors.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, which has been trying to prevent a radiation incident at the plant, has expressed concern about the situation. “Even though the decreased water level does not pose an immediate threat to nuclear safety and security, it may become a source of concern if it is allowed to continue,” agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement last month. The reservoir feeds far more than the nuclear plant.
Oleksiy Kuzmenkov, the head of Ukraine’s State Agency of Water Resources, said he was worried about the hundreds of thousands of residents who depend on the reservoir for their drinking water, as well as the farmers in the rich agricultural region who use it to irrigate their crops. Aquatic life also could suffer because of the shoreline’s retreat, he said. “Russians are stealing from the reservoir,” he said.
As bad as the environmental damage is within Ukraine’s cities, they are far safer to walk than what lies beyond. Throughout Ukraine, policymakers say they fear the long-term consequences of the war’s toll on the country’s forests, farmland, soil and marine life — all of which is subject to the intense artillery fighting that has hit the rest of the country.
Forests, for instance, have been decimated, as soldiers use them as hiding places and consume their wood. The lush woods east of Izyum that once beckoned campers and backpackers now hold the mass graves of hundreds of civilians who were executed by retreating Russians during fighting last fall. No one dares venture farther inside the booby-trapped woods, locals say.
Ukraine’s forest ecosystem is “becoming totally destroyed,” said Bohdan Vykhor, the head of the Ukrainian branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
The war also is destroying significant portions of the country’s fertile farmland, which historically has been crucial to the world’s food system. It used to feed the entire Soviet Union. More recently, it supplied 10 percent of global wheat exports. Ukraine’s Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research estimates that the war has degraded at least 40,000 square miles of agricultural land, it said in an email.
In Dovhenke, a farming village in the east, residents said shelling and debris have made their once fertile soil barren on the village’s outskirts. Fallen phone lines and cellphone towers dotted former vegetable fields.
Yuri Pedan, 34, had returned to the village in late December to recover the body of his brother, a farmer who was killed when he stepped on a land mine while searching for a missing cow. Another resident, Luda Algina, 43, said bombing had destroyed the fields she had worked since she was a girl, with dead mice trapped in water
wells, craters pockmarking the farms, and unknown chemicals making it impossible to seed vegetables and plants. “It always produced such a good harvest; it was incredible,” Algina said of Dovhenke, standing next to the remnants of her destroyed home. “I loved the soil and everything that grows.”
Birnbaum reported from Washington. Ievgeniia Sivorka contributed reporting from Kryvyi Rih.
Jeff Stein is the White House economics reporter for The Washington Post. He was a crime reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard and, in 2014, founded the local news nonprofit the Ithaca Voice in Upstate New York. He was also a reporter for Vox. Twitter
Michael Birnbaum is a climate reporter for The Washington Post. He previously served more than a decade in Europe as the newspaper’s bureau chief in Brussels, Moscow and Berlin, reporting from more than 40 countries. He joined The Post in 2008. Twitter