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Fighting for clean air in Kamianske, Ukraine

This town in eastern Ukraine suffers from serious emissions thanks to its metallurgical plant. But rounds of public negotiations over pollution have revealed what it’s lacking most: accountability. RU

Serhiy Guz
10 December 2018

Kamianske

Kamianske, formerly known as Dniprodzerdzyinsk, has a population of 300,000, and is close to the wider industrial area around the city of Dnipro. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.

The Petrovsky family have a house of their own, with a small yard, in the town of Kamianske in eastern Ukraine. The house stands in an old district of the city centre, where some buildings date back to the early 20th century or even earlier. Admittedly, not many survived two world wars; those buildings that did are now designated historical monuments.

These days, the Petrovsky family only open their windows slightly, to air out the rooms. If they were to leave them open all day, the window ledges and everything nearby would be covered in a layer of black dust. Doing the laundry is another nightmare: the family don’t have a dryer, so they hang their damp clothes in the yard and then shake the graphite out of them afterwards.

In the summer, three generations of the Petrovskys like to gather in the little yard and dine on kebabs – after, of course, they have washed the graphite from the bench, table and chairs.

“I remember once going for a walk with my little nephew Timokha,” Yana Petrovskaya tells me. “We were outdoors for just over an hour, and then we had to wash all the graphite off him – it had clung so hard to his skin that a damp cloth wasn’t enough to remove it.”

Life next door to the plant

The Petrovsky family live in the Sanitary Protection Zone of the Dneprovsky Metallurgical Plant (DMK). The zone stretches for approximately a kilometre around the plant, and here housing construction is banned by law. People have, however, been living here for decades, as the plant is located near the city’s historic and administrative centre, including the city hall, central park, historical museum and Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches, as well as dozens of shops, banks, a pre-school nursery and two schools, a vocational college and many other facilities – not to mention hundreds of people’s homes.

Back in Soviet times, there were plans to re-house all the residents of the areas affected by metallurgical plant, and afterwards the relevant regulations were incorporated in Ukrainian law and re-housing plans even drawn up in 2011. The only difference was that now the plant’s shareholders, rather than the state, would be responsible for the re-housing costs. But over the last few years, no one has been re-housed, and this year, when a new row arose over the increasing amount of toxic waste being produced by the plant, its owners claimed that nobody had asked to be re-housed outside the sanitation zone.

Kamianske
April 2017: for the first time in many decades, clear skies over the city. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.None

When I mentioned this to the Petrovskys, they merely laughed: they claim they haven’t been offered re-housing for many years. And they don’t believe that they will receive an equal trade in terms of a new apartment or adequate financial compensation – they’ve invested considerable financial and material resources into their house over the years. But they can’t afford to move to a cleaner area, so they have had to get used to the graphite dust and other emissions falling from the sky.

The Petrovskys aren’t the only people affected by pollution in Kamianske. Housing values have fallen steeply in this neighbourhood over the last few years, and it is now impossible to sell your house for a decent amount of money and move to a cleaner district. Industrial pollution is, in other words, no longer just an environmental problem – it is a social problem as well. And a rapidly growing one.

Toxic waste in the wind

The metallurgical factory has always been Kamianske’s main source of atmospheric pollution. The locals have jokingly christened their city “Dniprodym” (“Dniprofumes”, in reference to the city’s old name Dniprodzerdzyinsk) because of the permanent smog that hangs over its outskirts.

In the late 1980s, there were attempts to designate the city as an official environmental catastrophe zone, but the Soviet authorities didn’t agree. Then, when Ukraine became independent, the plant went through a bad patch, with a significant drop in production and a corresponding drop in toxic emissions. The mass environmental protests gradually died down too.

The local authorities and the plant’s shareholders would periodically dream up various projects to modernise production and lower toxic emissions, but most of them remained on paper, deadlines for their implementation constantly came and went and no one, except the local environmentalists, was bothered about it. The most recent project, the “Kamianske Environmental Plan for 2016-2020”, was signed off in 2015, after the Euromaidan revolution. This plan foresaw the complete reconstruction of the complex’s sinter plant, the main source of the dust and graphite that coats the city. But in 2017, something happened to change and exacerbate the situation in the city: production at DMK closed down for several months.

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Collection of signatures against emissions of DMK.

As a result, workers were temporarily laid off and their wages sharply cut. The local papers were soon full of job ads for metal workers at other firms, including the Interpipe factory in nearby Dnipro. Staff began to move to these other plants, leaving DMK with a shortage of trained staff, although this would only become apparent when the plant started operating again.

Thus, in spring 2017, residents saw a clear sky above the city for the first time in decades. Entire generations had grown up with industrial smog as normal a phenomenon as sunrise and sunset. Now they could fill their lungs with clean air.

Their joy was, however, short-lived. In August 2017, the plant returned to full-scale operations again, with graphite and dust emissions even worse than before the standstill. According to laboratory tests of emissions in both the sanitation zone and two kilometres away, the maximum permissible dust concentration was being exceeded four- or five-fold. The city was also periodically covered by an orange-coloured cloud from the complex’s.

At this point, locals and active citizens reacted, and petitions started landing on official desks, demanding that something be done.

It turned out that no reconstruction had even begun at the sinter plant, and the converter facility had been rebooted despite a faulty waste treatment plant. By mid-autumn 2017, the mass protests had started again, with picket lines and burning tyres outside the plant’s management offices. It seemed as though it wouldn’t take much to spark a real social revolt.

Public unity

“Although I don’t live in the worst area, I realise that the city’s future depends on its environmental state,” says Andriy Ivanchenko, a city council member and activist in the Strength of Community Kamianske organisation, which is trying to tackle the emissions issue. “For us, it’s less a question of fighting the company than trying to influence its owner, to get him to invest in the environment.”

After six months of protests and several inspections of the plant, the Kamianske city authorities signed a memorandum with DMK management, detailing the environmentally oriented changes that it needed to introduce. Instead of a complete reconstruction of the sinter plant, for example, there would be a reconstruction of its gas purification system instead. And the plant assumed responsibility for repairing the waste-heat recovery units in the converter plant.

But no one was going to hold up the work of DMK for the sake of eliminating the excessively high emissions. The company, in fact initiated a series of pseudo-public hearings, where they tried to justify amendments to the proposed environmental projects. It was only the principled position of civil society activists that partially blocked the process.

rsz_dmk_konverter_0.jpg

Emissions from the DMK converter plant, 2017. Source: 5692.com.ua.

The environmental activists noticed that the new financial obligations imposed on DMK were five times lower than the previous ones: the city council, having agreed to these terms, were in fact saving the company more than two billion hryvnya (£56m). In return, the company announced that they would give the city authorities a grant of initially 40 million (£1.1m), and later another 20 million hryvnya (£562,000) to finance civic projects designed to decentralise Kamianske’s heating system.

“We discovered that DMK received an ISO 14001:2015 Environmental Management Certificate, which also covers strategic environmental management,” Andriy Ivanchenko tells me, referring to a voluntary standards framework that organisations can sign up to. “But we see a discrepancy between the certificate and the actual operation of the metallurgical plant. We’ve just started a campaign to draw public attention to this breach of universally recognised standards, and perhaps we can get international environmental organisations to get involved in this issue.”

Nobody’s toxic emissions

Voice of Nature is Kamianske’s oldest environmental organisation (and one that I’m a member of). Its members also take part in various protest actions, but believe that they should concentrate their pressure on the state and local authorities, which have the power to affect the situation and monitor toxic emissions.

“We’d be wrong to imagine that DMK has no future,” says Yevhen Kolishevskyi, director of Voice of Nature. “The fact that the company’s owner is not implementing the company’s environmental programme or investing in modernising production saddens me. It’s possible that they, or those who manage the complex, are squeezing the last juices out of it, to then leave it to the winds of fate.”

Kolishevskyi’s NGO believes that for jobs to be protected and environmental projects implemented, the city authorities should ask the Ukrainian government to re-acquire DMK, so that it then can then be sold to other investors who would be prepared to develop it.

The situation with the toxic waste emissions is complicated by the murky question of DMK’s ownership. Official registers name the Industrial Union of Donbas corporation as the company’s main shareholder, but Russia’s Vnesheconombank is registered as the corporation’s main shareholder. Many people in Kamianske believe that the Russian shareholders should bear responsibility for the factory.

“In 2015, when the Kamianske Environmental Plan was adopted, the complex was owned by Vnesheconombank. What would Russia want with us and our environment, given that they are fighting us and killing our people?” asks Mykola Kolyuchy, head of the Metallist trade union at DMK. “But there is another question: who should get the owner to cough up? There are certain legal provisions in the country; there are environmental services that should be monitoring the situation, demanding that deadlines be met and toxic emissions eliminated. Why do they treat their responsibilities this way, why aren’t they making demands of those that are polluting?”

Since April 2017, DMK has been managed by the Metinvest mining and steel group. It belongs to Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, who appointed DMK’s top managers and sources its raw materials.

Metinvest has won several lawsuits against the Industrial Union of Donbas corporation, to the tune of 20 billion hryvnya (£56 million), which the corporation is in no state to replay. The official sale of the DMK complex is also complicated by ISD’s enormous debts towards its other creditors. In the end, a semi-transparent deal has been done to allow DMK to be transferred to Metinvest without this transfer being recorded in any official registers.

Given this situation, many Kamianske residents are asking the reasonable question: “who is going to implement all the environmental obligations that DMK took on itself?” After all, at the end of the agreed periods, today’s Metinvest managers may just abandon the company if its ownership has not been officially transferred.

The factory’s unknown future also makes hostages of all its workers, who have played little part in the anti-emission protests. The steel workers have to endure dangerous environmental conditions both at work and at home, although no one ever complains to the union about it.

“You have to understand people who were scared by last year’s standstill at the plant: that could happen again, and then where would you find 10,000 jobs?” Mykola Kolyuchy asks. “Here, the state needs to take the lead in both environmental issues and the stability of the company. But have you noticed the state taking on that role? No one has. So people tell themselves that conditions might be appalling, but at least my family will have food in their stomachs.”

The city authorities and DMK are now promising to completely eliminate the excessive toxic emissions from the converter plant by the end of next year, and to modernise the cleaning facilities at the sinter plant by 2021.

Many people are of course unconvinced that these plans will come to fruition. In the next two years Ukrainians will go to the polls three times: to elect a president, a parliament and local councils. After this election cycle, a completely new set of people may be walking the corridors of power – and there will be no one left to keep the promises made.

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