Since February 24, following the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, Ecoaction has been monitoring cases of potential negative environmental damage caused by Russian aggression. The purpose of this work is to report the potential effects of the war on the environment and the population of Ukraine and provide assistance to the Ukrainian authorities in collecting facts that will be used to obtain compensation (reparation) from Russia for the inflicted damage in international courts. Crimes against the environment belong to war crimes. According to the Geneva Convention, “it is forbidden to use methods or means of warfare that are intended to cause or may be expected to cause widespread, lasting and severe damage to the natural environment”.
Proper investigation will have to take place after the military activities have ceased. Yet, even, for now, the Ukrainian State Environmental Inspection has estimated as much as USD 77 million in damages connected with land contamination, while Ecoaction has already documented over 200 cases that could cause severe damage to the environment.
Most of these cases took place in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lugansk regions, as well as Southern Ukraine, but all parts of Ukraine, including the western region, are affected by the occupiers. Nuclear power plants, seaports, hazardous waste storage facilities (mineral fertilizers, polyurethane foam, paint, oil, lubricants, etc.), and industrial enterprises, including chemical and metallurgical plants are now in the zone of active hostilities. Numerous fires in oil depots, gas stations, landfills, and damaged heating and water supply facilities have been registered, and below we will discuss the most serious consequences of the war on the environment.
Threats to nuclear and radiation safety
The news of the seizure of the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants shook the world. Exceedance of control levels of gamma radiation dose rates in the Chornobyl exclusion zone was registered due to the movement of Russian heavy military equipment and the release of contaminated radioactive dust into the air. The Chornobyl NPP was occupied for more than a month and during this period, occupiers kept the station staff hostage and damaged a high-voltage line supplying electricity for cooling spent nuclear fuel. The lack of electricity might have caused a temperature rise in the spent fuel pools, potentially releasing radioactive substances into the environment, and threatening the nuclear security of the whole Europe. Fortunately, Ukrainian experts managed to fix the power line and on March 31 the State Agency of Ukraine on Exclusion Zone Management reported that occupants left the Chornobyl area.
However, Russian nuclear terrorism is still ongoing, since the Zaporizhzhia NPP, where on March 14 the Russians detonated some munitions and damaged the power line, is still occupied. This NPP has become the first nuclear power plant in the world to be fired at from tanks. A particular danger to nuclear safety is still posed by Russian cruise missiles that flew extremely close to the Khmelnytsky NPP on March 16, the Pivdennoukrainsk NPP on March 25, and the Zaporizhzhia NPP on March 26.
Satellite images show that currently there are small wildfires raging in wildlands, including Chornobyl zone.
Explosions on oil depots and fuel warehouses
Since the first days of the full-scale war, Russian aggression is focused on the destruction of fuel warehouses, which may cause enormous air pollution. In total, there were recorded almost 30 cases of burning oil depots and tanks with oil products. On February 27 and March 12, 2022, the oil depot in Kryachky village near Kyiv exploded after the missile attack, and 10 tanks with 2000m3 of oil and diesel caught fire. Estimated environmental damages make $25bl. Similar cases occurred in Okhtyrka, Luhansk, Chernihiv, Zhytomyr and Chernyakhiv, and many other places all over Ukraine. Combustion of petroleum products due to fires and shelling pollutes the air and poses a direct threat not only to the environment but also to human health as products of burning contain toxic gases and particulate matter.
According to the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, during hostilities on the territory of Ukraine, the volume of pollutant emissions into the atmosphere can already be equated to the volume of those emitted by a single metallurgical plant for the entire year.
Attacks on infrastructure and industrial facilities
Shelling and occupation increase the risk of toxic waste emissions from industrial facilities in Ukraine. So far, the State Register of Potentially Hazardous Facilities contains information about more than 23,000 facilities, including 2,987 warehouses storing highly toxic pesticides. The most significant number of these facilities are concentrated in Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and Lviv regions. Some of these facilities are in the zone of military operations.
There are many recorded cases when industrial facilities were targeted by Russians. It led to fires and additional air, soil and water pollution. On March 21, at the chemical plant Sumykhimprom located near Sumy, ammonia leaked because of the shelling, seriously affecting the nearby village. In the Donetsk region, numerous shelling and bombing of Severodonetsk Nitrogen Fertilizer Plant and Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant have been observed, as well as at the Metallurgical Combine Azovstal in Mariupol, which is being purposefully destroyed by the Russians using heavy bombs and banned munitions.
There are also registered cases of severe fires due to the shelling of warehouses of fertilizers, paints, varnishes, etc. For example, on March 3, in the Chaiky village near Kyiv, a missile hit the foam rubber storage causing a fire. Products of rubber foam burning cause poisoning of both humans and animals and may also lead to acidic rains. In Rubizhne (Lugansk region) Russian missiles twice hit tanks containing ammonium acid, causing the release of pollutants into the air.
Pollution directly caused by hostilities
Military activities themselves pose no lesser danger. Spilled fuel, destroyed equipment, spent weapons, and exploded missiles all contaminate soil and groundwater with chemicals and heavy metals. Even after the war, some environmental effects will take years to eliminate.
More than 2000 Russian missiles have been launched on Ukraine. According to the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, from February 24 to May 3, 2022, over 90,000 explosive devices and 583.4 kg of explosives, including 1,964 aviation bombs, were neutralized in Ukraine.
Exploded missiles and artillery weapons contain various chemical compounds: carbon monoxide and dioxide, water vapor, nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen oxide (NO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide vapor (HCN), nitrogen (N2) and loads of toxic organic. Metal fragments of shells are also not completely safe for the environment. Cast iron mixed with steel is the most common material for ammunition cases and contains not only the usual iron and carbon but also sulphur and copper.
On a smaller scale, pollution may also be caused by burning tanks, vehicles, airplanes, and other warfare remnants. There are also numerous messages from Kramatorsk, Rubizhne, Huliaipole, etc. that Russians used phosphorous bombs banned by the Geneva Convention. White phosphorus can cause not only horrific injuries but possesses environmental threats, heavily polluting soils and water.
Damage to protected areas and vulnerable ecosystems
Russian troops create technogenic and environmental disasters. They destroy natural areas that provide habitat for rare species. Preliminary estimates of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine reveal that Russia wages hostilities at 900 objects of nature reserves in an area of around 1.2 million hectares. According to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, 44% of the most valuable natural-reserve territories are either affected by the war or remain under the temporary control of Russian invaders.
About 200 areas (2.9 mln ha) of the Emerald Network are endangered. The Emerald Network includes conservation areas created to preserve species and habitats that need protection all over the non-EU countries in Europe. Those territories are essential for protecting biodiversity and saving climate. Some rare and endemic species and habitats are in the middle of warfare meaning that their whole survival is in danger: untilled steppes, chalk slopes in the Donetsk region, coastal habitats in southern areas, and swamps in the north.
The war is also affecting animals, many of which are breeding in the spring in the regions where fighting is currently taking place. In addition, ornithologists highlight the significant impacts of the war on birds – there are three main bird flyways through the whole territory of Ukraine. Those places are extremely important for migrating birds to feed and rest, so they need to be preserved. Most of the flyways are now located over the warfare zones. It may be disturbing for birds and cause their exhaustion because of changing routes or losing places to rest, as well as direct deaths from shooting and shelling.
Pollution of water resources
Warfare directly or indirectly causes pollution of water resources, which are already very limited due to climate change and growing demand. Destruction of infrastructure and industrial facilities can lead to a discharge of pollutants into water bodies, while destroyed treatment facilities and pumping stations are unable to purify water and supply it to Ukrainians properly.
For example, on March 14, Russia shelled sewage treatment plants in the Zaporizhzhya region destroying the pump station that distributes wastewater of Vasylivka among the facilities, so those waters are now flowing directly into the Dnipro River without any filtering. They may contain organic substances, pathogenic bacteria, sulphates, and chlorides that may cause a large-scale algal bloom in the Dnipro River and the Black Sea when the weather becomes warmer.
In addition, due to the hit of Russian missile wreckage into the tanks with fertilizers, pollution of the Ikva River in Rivne region was registered. The concentration of ammonium exceeds the norm by 163 times. The fish kill is observed and people from the surrounding villages are forbidden to use water.
Irreversible processes of soil salinization and water pollution are also associated with the uncontrolled flooding of coal mines in the eastern part of Ukraine. This problem is not new for the region, yet recently it has turned into an environmental disaster. Currently, there is information about flooding of Zolote, Toshkivska, Carbonit, and Horna underground mines in the Luhansk region. Untreated mine waters can be mixed with groundwater and poison the Siversky Donets river basin.
Impact on marine ecosystems
Military actions take place not only in Ukrainian lands but also in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Russian hostile troops attack port infrastructure and anchored ships alongside the seashore, use their ships and submarines to shell Ukrainian cities, block ports, and mine the sea, causing water pollution and discharge of poisonous substances into the sea. Naval battles end with fires and sinking of ships, planes, and helicopters, causing oil leaks directly into the sea. On February 26, two Russian missiles hit the civilian bunker “Millennial Spirit” transporting 600 tons of oil and diesel on board and caused a huge fire. On March 3, two Russian missiles sank the merchant ship “Helt”, which was under the flag of Panama. After the explosion, the ship sank. The environmental impact of the accident has yet to be evaluated.
All the components of the oil are toxic to marine life. Oil products harm marine biocenosis by forming oily films on the water surface and breaking energy, heat, humidity, and gas exchange between the sea and the atmosphere. Moreover, they directly impact the physical chemistry and hydrologic conditions of the marine environment, killing fish, sea birds, and microorganisms.
Besides, the warfare itself negatively affects marine life. Explosions, shelling, floating mines, and the use of sonars are extremely harmful to marine mammals. At the end of April, in the reserve Tuzlivski Lymany (Odesa region), scientists observed dolphins that most likely died due to hostilities and operating sonars.
Complete assessment of the damage will be possible only after the end of active hostilities. Yet, Ukrainians and people in neighboring countries will be experiencing the consequences of this war for years ahead. Therefore, it is vital to stop the war as soon as possible. Russia must pay for the destruction of Ukrainian businesses and infrastructure and all the crimes against humanity, including those against the environment.