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UN Warns Chemical Facilities and Ukraine Fighting a Toxic Combo

The S.Kirov Mine of the state-owned Makeyevugol company in the Donetsk region on Feb. 20, 2017. (Igor Maslov/Sputnik via AP)

The United Nations warned today that fighting in eastern Ukraine is encroaching perilously close to chemical facilities, raising the risk of a catastrophic explosion or leaks that would cause widespread deaths and contamination in the region.

On Feb. 24, a water treatment plant in Donetsk that stored more than 15,000 pounds of chlorine gas, the same substance weaponized and being used as a chemical weapon by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was struck by shelling. The facility was damaged but none of the chlorine gas containers ruptured.

The treatment facility feeds water to ares on both sides of the front lines, those controlled by Ukraine and those controlled by Russia-backed forces.

The UN warned that if one of those chlorine gas containers had been hit, anyone within 200 meters would have been killed. “Severe health consequences” would befall anyone within a mile and a half. Depending on the extent of the damage, evacuation within 24 hours would apply to people living up to 5 miles downwind of the facility.

Baskut Tuncak, the special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and waste at the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, noted in a statement today that “large chemical and industrial facilities are in areas where fighting is ongoing,” and “battles are now being fought in cities, close to industrial centers, with factories increasingly becoming at risk of being hit.”

“The consequences for anyone living close by would be severe,” Tuncak added.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called on parties in the conflict to “respect the civilian nature of water infrastructure, demilitarize the adjacent areas and give a wide berth during fighting.”

“A reasonable, limited supply of essential safety equipment for the staff of water treatment facilities must also be allowed into areas of the country not controlled by the government so that in case of any damage to chlorine storage, the staff can not only survive but also take action.”

Tuncak warned that additional toxic substances in the industry-heavy eastern part of Ukraine, including mining, metals and chemical facilities, pose a risk to residents.

“All parties to the conflict need to be aware of the risks that continuous insecurity brings, including for a chemical disaster,” Tuncak said. “Ultimately, it is about ensuring that all precautions are being taken to prevent such catastrophe to occur, and mainly for the fighting to stop.”

Ukraine Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, testifying before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee this week on Russian policies toward Eastern Europe, said there is a “shocking number of Russian weaponry pumped into the occupied Donbas and Crimea.”

“It’s now about 4,200 regular troops and up to 40,000 militants. It’s about more than 400 tanks and 800 armored vehicles. It’s up a thousand artillery systems and over 200 multiple rocket launchers, around 23,000 troops in the occupied Crimea,” Klimkin said. Nearly 10,000 Ukrainians have died in fighting over the past three years.

“Just in the last six weeks, the Russians and their proxies launched a fierce attack against our troops and civilian population in Avdiyivka. Russia has recognized the passports and documents issued by illegal entities in Donbas and has also completed the introduction of the Russian ruble as the currency in the occupied territory. Furthermore, Russia has also ordered the illegal expropriation of the key enterprises in the occupied territory,” he continued. “All this is nothing but a clear breach of each and every point of the Minsk peace agreements.”

“The only viable way to negotiate with Russia is from a position of strength and international solidarity. And no new agreements should be made with Russia until such time as they have delivered on their provisions and commitments.”