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12 December, 2012  ▪  Natalia Kommodova

Stolen Air

The half-million population of Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine is standing for its right to breathe safely
Gallery: Mariupol cannot breathe (photos: 10)

Over 10,000 people recently took to the streets, demanding an end to the emission of the poisonous smog that covers Mariupol virtually every day from the Azovstal and MMK Illich Steelworks, both owned by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov’s Metinvest Holding. Despite reports by the plants and the authorities of reduced emissions, locals claim that the industrial giants continue to blatantly poison the oxygen they inhale and that Mariupol is gradually dying, at the same time, killing the Sea of Azov with its unique flora and fauna. Meanwhile, regulators are turning a blind eye to the environmental abuse and its devastating effect.

Thousands of people signed an anti-smog resolution and presented it to the president, the government, the ombudsman and even the Green faction at the European Parliament. Discouraged protesters were prepared to block the work of the city hall and the major polluters for as long as it takes them to implement modern air cleaning solutions and for municipal authorities to report accurately on what people inhale. The unprecedented scale of the rally pushed plant owners to make concessions.

THE GAS CHAMBER BY THE SEA

Mariupol, a city on the sea shore, has the worst air pollution in Ukraine. It is home to the biggest steel and coke plants in Ukraine. They generate 25% of all emissions in Donetsk Oblast. “It is possible to touch as well as see what you inhale in Mariupol”, the locals joke.

The annual share of industrial pollution per citizen is 800 kg. This is almost eight times as much as the average pollution per person in Ukraine. Lung cancer kills every fifth citizen of Mariupol, while the local cemetery is reportedly the biggest in Europe. Sociologists report a massive migration out of the city and a steep devaluation of real estate. Meanwhile, neither the governor nor environmental watchdogs think that the situation in Mariupol is disastrous.

Azovstal and MMK Illich steelworks produce 98% of all emissions. They also support the city, since they own stores, food producers and drug stores, while the plants employ nearly 40,000 local residents. People patiently grew used to the dust and char that cause eyes to burn and dizziness before things got much worse this fall. The caustic “smell of money” – this is how the locals refer to smog – has spread to districts remote from the plants, while the suffocating mist now covers the city every day.

Mariupol is the only city in Ukraine where citizens are not officially warned about bad weather conditions that make it dangerous to be outside or even open windows. On windless or foggy days, industrial emissions do not diffuse fast enough, concentrating in residential districts near the plants instead. Whenever that happens, the streets turn into gas chambers. The most damaging effect is on children.

“Our district was previously considered to be clean, because it’s far from the plant,” says Inna Dmytryshyna, mother of Maryana, 2, and Daryna, 4. “Now, even shut windows no longer protect us from dust and smoke. My daughter has chronic bronchitis and she can’t breathe without an inhaler. Local pulmonology units are all packed with patients. “What’s going on there? We seem to run out of inhalers before we deliver them,” wondered a supplier from Donetsk when I bought one for my daughter.”

Over a period of 10 months, Mariupol was engulfed in thick smog for 187 days – more than six months. In September, 23 of 30 days were dangerous for breathing. Mid to high levels of pollution were announced three times in October alone. These are the periods when people are officially recommended to wear special protective masks and clothes outdoors.

“It only takes seconds for smog to cover an outdoor sports ground where school kids have their PE classes in warm seasons. The children begin to suffocate. It is common now to “evacuate” them immediately back to school if this happens,” says Eleonora Haivoronska, a PE instructor at School 53 and activist in the local environmental protection campaign. “Sometimes we have to provide first aid to children who don’t feel well.” She says that children get sick on a massive scale, especially during these smog attacks. Doctors diagnose them with acute respiratory viral infections as opposed to chemical bronchitis caused by toxic emissions. As a result, parents cannot prove that local industry has damaged their child’s health in court.

In fact, the Sanitary Service has been reporting that the levels of dust and toxic substances, such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, phenol and formaldehyde, exceed the acceptable level in 25% of all air samples. They claim that sanitary areas which are supposed to protect people from poisonous emissions are no longer effective, and pollution has reached residential areas. However, when environmental activists requests measurements of pollution levels to find out what people really inhale when smog covers the city, the Sanitary Service finds excuses not to do it, such as an ongoing reform or the lack of petrol for the car. 

LICENSED TO POISON?

The reconstruction of a sinter plant and reduction in emissions from Azovstal by 2012-2013 were the requirements for the plants to be granted licenses by the Ministry of Environment. In September 2012, the local authorities along with Akhmetov’s Metinvest passed a new Health Improvement Programme in Mariupol that postponed modernization for four years. After 4 November, a decision was taken to suspend it altogether. As a result, the next smog attack pushed a record-breaking 10,000 protesters onto the city’s main square. Wearing respirators, they stormed City Hall, demanding the resignation of the inactive mayor, Yuriy Khotlubey, and other officials. Several days later, the management of Azovstal announced a stoppage in operations in order to conduct renovations, declaring smoke from the processing of recoverable resources containing peat, as a possible source of the suffocating smog. Plant employees claim that the real cause is spending cuts. With obsolete purification facilities and production techniques that are over 100 years old, steelworks cannot but violate emission requirements. If they try to meet them, steel and coke will become too expensive. 

“Unfortunately, Ukrainian industrial plants do not take environmental risks into account when doing their financial calculations,” says Pavlo Khazan, leader of the sustainable development and energy campaign at the Green World Ukrainian Environmental Association. “Paradoxically, Ukrainian environmental legislation is considered to be one of the most advanced in Europe, but it’s not working. Regulators have essentially given the green light for big industrial plants to emit levels of poisonous chemicals into the air and water that pose a threat to people’s health. Environmental officials and local authorities put Mariupol citizens under threat, saying that the city’s steelworks cannot curb emissions because of current technological processes.”

According to Mykola Afanasiev, ex-Director of the now disbanded State Inspection for the Protection of the Sea of Azov, the plants have been postponing important environmental measures every year. As a result, the level of the least harmful and visible chemicals in the air in Mariupol has declined while that of barely noticeable yet extremely toxic gases in emissions remains unchanged.

Experts propose several solutions, including a significant increase in fines and stricter punishment – including criminal – for breaching environmental protection laws. Plants would no longer benefit from violating requirements, while authorities will not be able to pretend that problems do not exist.

A RED FLAG FOR THE SYSTEM

Over 13,000 people signed the resolution before the Stop Smog rally. On 4 November, protesters urged the MPs representing their city to initiate necessary legislative changes, having considered the situation in the new parliament. They made it clear that they are not demanding the closure of the plants, but transparency and responsibility, compliance with environment protection laws and respect for the right to a safe and healthy life.

“Our rally is a red flag, warning the system that our patience is running out,” says the anti-smog resolution. “Driven to boiling point, the public is demanding that the authorities solve the problem here and now. We no longer trust sham pretence measures taken by the government and the plant’s administration!”

Protesters urge the Verkhovna Rada to amend the Law “On Environmental Emergency Zones” so that a relevant status is designated for cities and towns that are environmentally dangerous as a result of both disasters and long-term damage to citizens’ health.

Metinvest, in turn, promises to invest over USD 620mn to improve the environmental situation in Mariupol by 2020, while issuing a reminder that the local steelworks operate at huge losses. “In spite of our losses, we continue to finance reconstruction at a scale unseen in the past 50 years,” the holding’s press service said.

The Health Improvement for 2012-2020 Programme, drafted with Metinvest experts and approved by the city council, provides for a 40% reduction on emissions, “provided that the market situation is sufficiently favourable”. However, steelworks are facing a grim future as the crisis unfolds again, thus people in Mariupol have good reason to mistrust official pledges.

Currently, the residents of Mariupol are getting used to open windows, walking in parks and inhaling air without char as long as the operation of Azovstal’s toxic sinter plant is suspended. Activists say that they will not attend rallies as long as the air remains unpolluted. The anti-smog protest in Mariupol signaled asurge of civic activity never before seen in Donbas. Experts assume that it could serve as a model for other environmentally dangerous cities. 


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