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On February 12 the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine declared the provincial city of Kalush and the outlying villages an ecological disaster zone. Possible aggravation of the situation may impact millions of residents in Ukraine and Moldova. If extraneous measures are not taken, a disaster of global proportions will become inevitable
It is a tailing dump in which 14 mn cubic meters of brine have accumulated. The concentration of salt is on average 400 grams
Ghost plants play dirty tricks
We are on our way to Kalush, an one-hour ride on the local bus from Ivano-Frankivsk, the day after it was declared an emergency zone.
Upon arriving in the town one of the passengers on the bus recalls that all the local residents officially live in an emergency zone. “If they give money to rescue us, that would be great! If not, then they’re just a bunch of scumbags,” one neighbor curtly expressed.
We alight from the bus. Kalush residents are deeply concerned about the environmental issues but they simply got used to poisoned air and water and to life in expectation of evacuation that they don’t even want to be reminded of this fact once again. In the end, everything was voiced on January 17 when 97% of Kalush residents voted in a referendum held simultaneously with the presidential elections in favor of the city being designated an environmentally hazardous zone. “Every morning there is a chemical stench in the air. People get sick. They feel lethargic and suffer from a cough and sometimes migraine headaches,” complained Iryna, a street cleaner on the central square of Kalush. I smell something burning in the air and stench along all the streets and even in the local park.
I meet with Deputy Mayor of Kalush Vasyl Petriv in his office. He has worked out some top-priority measures and had put together a cost estimate.
“In better times Kalush was a major industrial center in Western Ukraine. We contributed up to 30% to the budget of the Ivano-Frankivsk oblast. More than 15,000 people were employed at local potassium and magnesium plants. Today, the magnesium plant is at a standstill and the potassium plant is ruined beyond repair,” Petriv recounted.
Needless to say, the shutdown of these plants was an economic disaster for the locals. Instead of generating profits these industrial giants bring only technogenic and environmental problems.
“They are like a nuclear reactor. When it operates, everyone is happy. When it is shut down problems always arise and there are consequences,” he says. We go out into the field to see what everyone is afraid of.
“Many residents dream of a perfect variant – they hope ore extraction would be renewed as this would bring order and restore t
An open quarry producing problems
Driving down a deserted road dodging potholes and passing lifeless workshops, we approach the Dombrovsky quarry. A guard reluctantly emerges from his booth and opens the gate to let us in. To our left is a depot of 15 once super-powerful and rusty BelAZ dump trucks. On the right-hand side of the road is a cottage community, where small lopsided wooden and brick houses stand on small hills, every house on its own hill. The landscape is so peculiar due to the neighboring quarry, where the land is constantly deformed.
“The Dombrovsky quarry was the first in Europe, where potassium salt was extracted opencast. Only in the Prykarpattya region ore layers are found at 40 meters from the surface. The quarry was a source of raw potassium and magnesium for these plants and local sulfate and magnesium-chlorate factories,” the guard recalled.
The pits are right below us and stretch for many meters into the distance. The crater in which even passersby can see potassium ore is really massive. There the upper layer of soil is brownish-red and fertile, the lower layer is grayish-black. This was precisely the main attraction of the pit.
“When operations at these plants came to a standstill in the 1990s, works in the quarry were also suspended and it became flooded. The situation became critical in July 2008, when the quarry was flooded with over 10 million cubic meters of water. Even two massive excavators were flooded,” said Petriv.
Water washes out the rocks and turns into a grayish-yellow slush called brine when it mixes with salt. The quarry contains some 15 mn cubic meters of such brine, which causes the sidewalls of the ditch to cave in. They are completely covered with deep cracks. The brine dissolves up to 100 meters of soil in the most exposed places. And the fact that this geological disaster is reaching the community of summer cottages is not the worst part. Indeed, the Syvka River flows several hundred meters away from the quarry into the Limnytsya River, so far the cleanest river in Europe. This river flows into the Dniester, which is one of the major sources of water supply in Ukraine and Moldova. This is precisely the cause for alarm. It will be a total disaster if the brine from the Syvka and Limnytsya rivers seeps into the Dniester. “At this rate of the sidewalls collapsing such a disaster could strike in two to three years,” Petriv admonished.
The quarry is not the only source of threat of contamination of rivers and drinking water. A large artificial pond is located a few kilometers away from there. It is a tailing dump in which 14 mn cubic meters of brine have accumulated. The concentration of salt is on average 400 grams per 1 liter of brine.
“We extracted ore from the quarry, then dissolved it in water at the plant, and so obtained substances needed for the production of fertilizers. The brine was dumped into the tailing pond,” former plant employee Petro Hrebinnyk recounted.
“Later the brine was used at the magnesium plant and the tailing pond was filled in with clay. With time it dried up and we covered the surface with soil. That was it. Even plants could have been cultivated on these fields,” Petriv added.
After the plants were shut down, there was no money left to restore the tailing ponds. Today they are in a state of total disrepair. The content of brine in the largest ponds currently exceeds the allowable norm by several times.
“The bottom and walls of the reservoir are covered with film, which in some places is unraveling and thereby letting brine seep into the water strata. Approximately 900 hectares have already been salted. Clearly, this water is not for human consumption. But there is another problem: the brine pressure on the dam is much higher than admissible standards. In short, if we do not take the necessary measures, the dam will break,” Petriv warned.
If the dam bursts it will wipe out the Vinisin carpet factory and the Sintra wallpaper factory located 200 meters down the dam.
“The brine will also spill into local rivers and the scariest part is it will overflow into the town itself. The brine will completely cover the land surface and contaminate the local environment, as it contains chrome, sodium and many other chemical elements besides potassium. This can happen any day now. We expect the greatest troubles with the spring floods,” said Petriv.
Kalush authorities in can only defer the disaster. Nobody knows what will
Living on the brim
But the mines and tailing ponds are not the only environmental problems that Kalush faces.
“Our town is like a disaster waiting to happen. Everything here is extremely dangerous,” said Tetyana Bodyk, who has taught the fundamentals of health and safety at a local school since 1993.
“The most popular topic for the locals is industrial emergency situations. The kids like these classes as there is lots of local materials and theory can be applied to them. There are visual aids every step of the way. For example, Parkhomenko St. is no more after it all sunk into the ground,” Bodyk recounted.
Private homes in Kalush are sinking underground because of potassium salt. In the Soviet times the salt was extracted in the quarry but prior to that in the 18th century it was only mined. As a result, today almost half the town – mostly private one-storey homes – is standing over the caves.
“This crater appeared last summer,” a local resident named Volodymyr said pointing to a pond 20 meters in diameter. “Brine immediately emerged to surface and can be seen with the naked eye. We were lucky that the land sunk here rather than 50 meters to the right where a home is situated,” he added.
This crater is one of twenty that have formed in Kalush over recent years that have been filled with a 1,000 truckloads of rock. But filling them was an exercise in futility as there is apparently a huge underground opening under the crater that simply sucked the earth into it like sand through the fingers.
“Over 100 industrial objects and 600 private homes were built above the quarries in Kalush. Another 3,000 homes in the two neighboring villages are situated on mines. These residents must be immediately evacuated,” Petriv warned.
He added that geological surveyors found 150 places, where the ground will simply cave in under people’s feet. The approximate square area of these craters was calculated, but when exactly they would give in could not be forecast. Maybe Mother Nature will show mercy on the local residents for another few years.
“My home was long ago deemed an emergency object. Sometimes at night I hear something growling underground. It is really scary to fell such horrors at my age and with my disabled sister living with me,” said pensioner Emelia Yatchyshyn pointing to cracks in her walls and a sagging ceiling.
The notorious Parkhomova St. ran right alongside her garden.
Yatchyshyn remembers the night when over 30 homes simultaneously collapsed, some of them were buried up to their roofs. That happened back in the 1980s and ever since the local residents have lived with the premonition of some disaster waiting to happen.
“We also have problems with the local drinking water. Try it and you will understand,” complained an old housewife as she pulled a full bucket of water from her well.
The water is crystal clear, but very salty. It is not potable and using it to prepare meals is not recommended. In the summer time the water takes on a grayish-yellow tint. The local folk attribute this to the brine that seeps into local water reservoirs.
“It is not just a matter of the brine, this water contains toxic substances as well,” head of the Karpaty Green Movement and environmentalist Mykhailo Dovbenchuk irately noted.
There is a huge field in Kalush in which 12,000 tonnes of hexachlorobenzene, a toxic waste product in the first class danger category that predisposes people to cancer, are buried.
“Approximately 30 years ago hexachlorobenzene was dumped in the forest outside the city in large tin barrels that were slightly covered in soil. Over those years the barrels rusted naturally and today toxins evaporate into the local atmosphere and seep into the underground. This is how these toxins get into the local drinking water,” the environmentalist explained.
“The latest tests conducted by the sanitary and epidemiological service proved the toxic substance is spread through the water strata, which means it has contaminated the local drinking water,” Petriv confirmed his statement.
Toxins, brine and chemical wastes have their impact. “We have 1.5 times more cases of cancer diseases than the average level in the oblast. Not to mention respiratory and liver diseases. Our residents and medical workers blame the environment for this. How else is it possible to explain that cases of people living 40-50 kilometers outside of our city contracting a disease are much lower than among city residents?” said Mykhailo Havrylyshyn, Chief Physician at the local polyclinic.
Postpone the enevitable
The VR has allocated UAH 560 mn to save 60,000 residents of Kalush. This is a miserly sum. Five times more money is needed just to fill holes.
“I don’t think we will have to evacuate the entire city. Although the money is for the time being only on paper, we are confident we will be allocated the required sum to cover the costs of preventative measures and restoration. UAH 340 mn is earmarked for resettling 7,000 residents. The situation is clear with them and we know what we have to do. We start by building a new residential neighborhood. But how do we resolve the rest of the problems? We received different suggestions from R&D institutes all over the country. Scientists keep continue to argue and timing is running short,” said the deputy mayor of Kalush.
The most efficient way to prevent groundwater reservoirs from salinification is to create a barrier in the soil. Many experts say a deep ditch should be excavated in order to tap groundwater reservoirs, then the ditch is covered with a special film and filled with thick clay. The clay dries up and does not brine penetrate any deeper. “This is something like an underground fortress for the city,” said Petriv.
What should they do with the mine? Many residents dream of a perfect variant – they hope ore extraction would be renewed as this would bring order and restore the jobs of at least some of the 15,000 unemployed for the first time since the plants were shut down.
“32 mn cubic meters of potassium salt remain in the quarry and another 120 mn cubic meters is in an undeveloped mine a few kilometers outside the city,” said deputy mayor.
By the way, salt waters, which are a hazard for drinking water, can be used for good purposes.
“We only extracted potassium and magnesium from those salt waters. The rest of the chemical elements were untouched. Such water contains half the elements on Mendeleev’s table. The waters contain some platinum and 4% gold. In the 1990s, the Russians and Japanese wanted to buy this element. But given that Ukrainian enterprises can deal with this without outside help, we raised the issue of renewing production. The matter is of not only saving the health of Kalush residents, but also the well-being for the city itself and the country as a whole,” Petriv said in closing.
As we dream of a brighter future, we seem to forget about the main problem – an entire field of buried toxic waste. But recalling this is in vain. The money allocated for its processing is strikingly insufficient. So, for the time being the authorities in Kalush can only defer the disaster. Nobody knows what will happen a few years down the road.