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Shelling around Ukrainian industrial facilities may trigger serious environmental consequences, report says

A Ukranian separatist tank drives past locals on a road in Aleksandrovsk town, near Luhansk, Ukraine, 03 October 2015. (EPA/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO)

A steady uptick in shelling along front lines in eastern Ukraine is threatening numerous industrial facilities that, if damaged, could trigger severe environmental and humanitarian consequences, according to a new report by an environmental nonprofit organization.

The report, published by the Geneva-based Zoi Environment Network and the Toxic Remnants of War Project, comes just days after the United Nations warned against the potential for a “catastrophic chemical disaster” in Ukraine’s restive east.

“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,” Baskut Tuncak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, said in a release.

The U.N. report, released Friday, indicated that on Feb. 24 errant shells had impacted a building that housed more than 15,000 pounds of chlorine gas. No containers were hit, the report said; however, if one container had been ruptured, anyone within 600 feet would have been killed.

The U.N. report did not say what facility had been targeted by the shelling, but another bulletin put out by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that on Feb. 24 the Donetsk Filter Station’s Chlorine gas depot had suffered a near miss. If the facility was significantly damage, the health of 20,000 nearby residents would be endangered, according to the Zoi report.

While water filtration plants pose a unique environmental risk, the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has a 200-year legacy of heavy industry and coal mining, making it an area replete with environmental hazards.

Last month, Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator, warned that sulfuric acid and formaldehyde could soon leak from a damaged Phenol plant near the village of Novgorodske into nearby fields and the Seversky Donets River.

The contamination of the river “would have disastrous humanitarian consequences in a highly industrialized part of Europe,” O’Brien said.

Aside from shelling, damage to industrial facilities in eastern Ukraine has also been attributed to two other factors, according to the Zoi report. Trade blockades limit the supply of goods between the east territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists and the government-held region, and frequent electricity outages have hindered industrial output in key areas. In February, heavy shelling around the town of Avdiivka’s coke-coal plant nearly shut down the facility which would have cut off heat to many of the town’s residents. In 2015, shelling nearly stalled Mariupol’s metallurgy plants, the Zoi repot said.

“The reduction in industrial output may have positive short-term effects on air quality but severe impacts on the regions economy,” the Zoi report said.

After nearly three years of conflict, environmental hazards in eastern Ukraine aren’t just relegated to “pollution from industrial sources,” the report said. Waste ponds from farms that are located in contested territory have fallen into disrepair and are leaking into water supplies while deforestation for heat and fortifications has left areas predisposed for soil erosion and caused native wildlife to flee. Agricultural zones, like many other areas along the front lines, have also been heavily mined.

“The focus on the ongoing threat of environmental emergencies triggered by damage to the Donbas region’s numerous industrial facilities, and the disruption to water and other essential services have helped frame the conflict’s environmental narrative to date,” the Zoi report said. “However these problems represent just a fraction of a large and complex suite of environmental issues that will threaten sustainable recovery and development for years to come.”