Toxic waste, toxic scandal in Kalush

By Christopher Miller and Anastasia Vlasova

KALUSH, Ukraine – Resting at the foot of Ukraine’s lush Carpathian Mountains is the bedroom community of Kalush in western Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, home to some 64,000 people.

It’s also the heart of a massive environmental problem. Several hundred million cubic feet of salty mining wastewater from an open pit mine for potash, which is used mostly in fertilizers, and the decaying remains of thousands of tons of toxic sludge at a nearby dump site are seeping into groundwater and tributaries of the Dniester River, the water supply for some 10 million people in western Ukraine and Moldova that runs into the Black Sea. The sludge contains the cancer-causing chemical hexachlorobenzine.

Editor’s Note: This investigation was conducted by the Objective investigative reporting project in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The program is financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The story can be freely republished with proper credits.

The severity of the situation has prompted environmental experts to warn of catastrophe should the wastewater spill over the crumbling walls of the 48-acre open mine known as the Dombrovsky Quarry.

It is only meters away from doing so.

Several of those experts as well as local officials have said that large amounts of the hexachlorobenzene, or HCB, have already been found in the water system, including the Dniester River.

The industrial chemical was used in the open pit mine that was part of the state-owned Oriana chemical enterprise when it was in operation from 1967 to 2001. It has already been found in the nearby water, including the Dniester River, most likely residue from the 11,000 tons that was buried by the company in the polygon, according to company and state records.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, describes HCB as “a synthetic organic chemical… a white crystalline solid. It does not occur naturally in the environment.”

Threat to water, human health

Some people who drink water containing HCB well in excess of the maximum contaminant level for many years “could experience liver or kidney problems; reproductive difficulties; increased risk of cancer,” writes the EPA.

HCB breaks down very slowly. Small particles stick to soil and remain in sediments in the bottoms of water bodies, according to the EPA. “It accumulates in plants, grasses, fish, marine animals, birds and animals.”

A man takes water for testing at the Dombrovskiy Quarry in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast’s Kalush on Nov. 25, 2013. (Anastasia Vlasova)

Former President Viktor Yushchenko pledged to clean up the contaminated sites in Kalush during his time in office, but didn’t.

Then the former government of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych threw hundreds of millions of hryvnia at the problem, even giving the area “emergency status” for being an “ecological disaster zone.”

Officials: Simply money-laundering scheme

But regional prosecutors, local government officials, non-governmental workers and environmentalists in Kalush allege that his former government, with help from the Israeli company and its local subsidiary responsible for the cleanup of the hazardous waste at the sites, designed a complex scheme to launder money and line their own pockets in the form of kickbacks without fully removing the toxic waste but making look as though they had.

They suspect that the Ukrainian government in 2010 approached SI Group Consort Ltd., a waste cleanup company registered in Israel, with the idea of opening a subsidiary in Ukraine to take on the tasks of removing hazardous waste from sites around the country. After the original tenders, further contracts could be won as the amount of toxic sludge found at the sites increased and the price of the project went up.

The Ivano-Frankivsk regional prosecutor’s office announced on June 23 that it had opened criminal proceedings on the grounds of “appropriation, embezzlement or the acquisition of another’s property by malpractice committed on a large-scale or organized group” in connection with the state funds allocated for the cleanup of Dombrovskiy Quarry and the nearby polygon. The crime carries a prison sentence of 7-12 years with the loss of the right to occupy certain positions or engage in certain activities for a term up to three years and confiscation of property.

SI Group’s chairman denies allegations

In an interview with the Kyiv Post, SI Group’s chairman, Ilya Marchevsky, denied any crimes were committed and said there was no scam created to steal money, adding that the company has only operated legally, honestly and transparently since its inception.

SI Group won tenders worth nearly Hr 872 million – approximately $73 million under the current exchange rate — in 2011-13 for the cleanup of hazardous wastes in every oblast of Ukraine, except for Kyiv and Sumy regions.

According to Ukraine’s journal of public procurement, the company had no competition and was the sole bidder of the project.

Speaking with the Kyiv Post, Marchevsky insisted there were other bidders for the project, but could not recall the companies’ names. Later he appeared to backtrack, saying he recalled only interested parties and not bidders.

Monopoly on hazardous waste disposal?

In winning the tenders, which were overseen by the Ministry of Environment, then headed by Nikolai Zlochevskiy, SI Group effectively inherited a monopoly on the disposal of hazardous substances in Ukraine.

Members of Ukraine’s former government, including Zlochevskiy, could not be reached for comment. Zlochevskiy is believed to be out of the country.

Marchevsky insisted that neither he nor SI Group has ties to members of the former or current government, and that they have been completely transparent with critics and auditors, who have dug through mounds of documents to check the company’s legitimacy on numerous occasions.

“I can tell you that nobody close to the Ukrainian government, including officials, are involved in this company,” Marchevsky said.

However, the online news site Nashi Groshi reported that until August 2012, Marchevskiy’s business partner of a company called Altima Plus was Boris Herman, whose brother-in-law is Dmitry Prytyka, a former deputy representing Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and a former chairman of the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine. Later Herman was re-registered as a shareholder of SI Group, according to Nashi Groshi.

Prior to joining SI Group, Marchevsky did not have experience in hazardous waste cleanup. He was rumored to have worked as a seller of Israeli linens, but he did not confirm that. He also refused to answer questions posed by the Kyiv Post regarding the specifics of his work history. He did, however, say that he joined SI Group after its inception in 2006, and in 2010, headed the effort to start a Ukrainian subsidiary specifically to compete for the government contracts for the Kalush cleanup.

‘Corruption, plain and simple’

Olha Sikora, a member of Ukraine’s parliament representing the Kalush region, told the Kyiv Post that the cleanup at Dombrovskiy quarry and the nearby polygon has been conducted horribly. Sikora is not shy about what she believes the operation was all about. “It was a corruption scheme, plain and simple.”

“More and more money has been put into this project since it began,” Sikora said. And yet, the amount of HCB remained the same, according to her and other environmentalists interviewed for this story.

Cleanup could have been done more cheaply

Roman Pereymybida, head of Ivano-Frankivsk regional non-governmental organization Greenpeace Carpathians, who worked at the potash factory for more than 14 years from 1978 to 1993, and said he “saw everything,” is “100 percent sure” that 11,000 tons of HCB were buried at the polygon, backing up his words with company documents as proof.

“This [cleanup] work could have been done for hundreds of thousands of hryvnia, but the government was allocating almost a billion for this project, and just signed away the money to a company with no experience in Ukraine,” he told the Kyiv Post.

“[SI Group] and the government are inflating the amount they say is needed to clean up Kalush to pour more money into the project to kick back to themselves,” he added.

That’s something that Marchevsky takes issue with. He insists that up to 32,000 tons were buried there, 24,000 of which SI Group removed. A state-run agency removed 8,000 tons prior to SI Group’s work, he said. He provided the Kyiv Post with shipping documents that showed SI Group shipped 24,000 tons of waste to companies in the United Kingdom, France and Poland, which disposed of it. Attempts to reach the companies to confirm the waste was received and disposed of were unsuccessful.

In 2012-2013, SI Group was paid Hr 439.4 million from the state budget expenditure for loading, unloading, logistics services and the transportation of the hazardous wastes from the ports of Ukraine to Poland, Britain and France.

Marchevsky chalked up the confusion around the amount of waste at the site to typical Soviet practices of record keeping. During Soviet times, the company likely did not list the full amount of HCB in documents as a way to downplay the potential for problems, he said.

Wasteland a ‘toxic time bomb’

The cleanup has been done hastily, experts say, whether it was done honestly or not.

Yuriy Sadoviy, the deputy director of the State Research Institute of Halurgy in Kalush who has spent 45 of his 67 years in Kalush, knows more than he’d care to about the quarry. To him, it is “a living, breathing monster – a toxic time bomb.”

Yuriy Sadoviy, a professor at Kalush Gallurgy Institute, shows a map of the chemical waste. (Anastasia Vlasova)

Sadoviy spoke to the Kyiv Post in his Kalush office, where large salt rocks, souvenirs from when the mine was in operation, adorn his desktops, along with dozens of faded topographical maps, their corners curled from years of use. Tracing his finger over the quarry and the polygon on one of them, he explains how and where water enters and leaves them, carrying with it salt, HCB, pesticides and other harmful chemicals into other bodies of water.

When the mine was closed in 2001, it naturally filled with water. Meanwhile, the chemicals used were buried in the ground at a site nearby called the polygon. Typically when creating a polygon, to ensure the chemicals do not leak, a massive hole the depth of several meters is dug and clay is placed in the bottom. On top of that rests a sheet of polyethylene upon which barrels filled with the chemicals are stacked. The clay helps ensure a sturdy foundation. Another polyethylene sheet is then laid over top, followed by 60 centimeters of soil.

However, in the case of the Kalush polygon, there was no clay, and no first layer of polyethylene, both Sadoviy and Marchevsky confirmed. The lack of these elements proved to be a huge problem, given the city of Kalush and surrounding villages rest atop a maze of mines, explains Mykhaylo Dovbenchuk, head of Ivano-Frankivsk regional non-governmental organization Green World.

Mykhaylo Dovbenchuk, a local environmental activist, shows holes in the ground caused by damage to the Dombrovskiy Quarry in Kalush in western Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast on Nov. 25, 2013. (Anastasia Vlasova)

Photographs obtained by the Kyiv Post show barrels cracked and strewn about the area of the polygon, some completely exposed, the light-colored HCB chemical spilled all around.

Small and large cave-ins have occurred around Kalush in the past, and sinkholes and large cracks appear regularly, he says. It’s likely that the toxic sludge at the polygon managed to slip through them and into the water supply.

“Massive sinkholes showed themselves in the 1980s. Several incidences of cave-ins forced entire villages to be relocated. The entire area of Kalush is extremely unstable,” Dovbenchuk said.

Sadoviy, when asked to clarify the severity of a hastily built polygon combined with unstable earth, let out a heavy sigh and removed his cap to swipe his forehead. “It is a very, very big problem.”

‘Kalush would be paralyzed immediately’

Others agree. As he gestured to a group of men in masks and white suits working at the polygon, Pereymybida elaborated. “If large amounts of water spilled over the quarry walls, or the hexochlorobenzine from the polygon leaks anymore into the ecosystem and rivers… it would be a huge catastrophe. Kalush would be paralyzed completely. The closest villages would be gone, people forced from their homes, relocated. Odesa and Moldova also would be greatly affected, and the Black Sea. It would be a disaster on a global scale,” Pereymybida said.

Galyna Prociv, a member of the National Ecological Center in Ternopol Oblast, said that in such a case, “the biodiversity will change – drastically decrease, actually – if it happens.”

“About 10 millions of people drink water from the Dniester (River). Moreover, about 80 percent of Moldova’s water supply comes from the Dniester. Also Vinnitskiy, Chernivetskiy and Odeskiy regions use water from the Dniester,” she added.

‘Even breathing’ HCB can lead to health problems

Standing downwind from the polygon, the bitter scent of the HCB can be easily smelled. Pereymybida, scrunching his nose, warned Kyiv Post journalists not to go closer without protection, especially with the wind blowing. “Even breathing it in could lead to health problems,” he explained. “Imaging having it in your drinking water.”

Walking around the quarry, it is easy to see how the problem might go unnoticed and how someone could get away with a corrupt scheme, as alleged. In almost a week there, perhaps only a dozen cars sped past the polygon. At the quarry, not a soul was seen. In fact, Kalush is far off the beaten path. Few trains pass through the city; car and bus transport is limited. That’s one reason Pereymybida said that nobody pays attention, not even the local population.

“They live here, but they are oblivious to the problem,” he said.

For the most part, media coverage has been sparse. Local and national media have reported on the quarry, but in little detail. Former investigative journalist turned anti-corruption department head Tetyana Chornovol looked into SI Group’s Marchevsky and the alleged corruption scheme, but uncovered no hard evidence of that the chairman was in cahoots with members of the government to steal taxpayers’ money. That could be one reason why the wasteland hasn’t garnered more attention.

But that hasn’t persuaded local officials and environmentalists otherwise. Despite the lack of interest, they have thrown significant time and effort into ensuring both the environmental problems as well as the alleged corruption scheme doesn’t go unnoticed.

Some of them have faced persecution and even received threats of violence from people they say represented the former government and SI Group. Pereymybida was fired from his current job at the local Karpat Oil Chemical Factory over his work with Greenpeace on the issue. But he took the company to court and won his case. Following a court order, the company had to rehire him.

Catastrophe only a few meters away

It is perhaps due to pure luck that the wastewater from the Dombrovskiy quarry hasn’t spilled over. With a mere meter left in some places before it does, a series of heavy rains could send the brine rushing into fields and streams.

On average, the quarry has 350 milliliters of salt for every liter of water, according to Dovbenchuk. He says water closer to the bottom has higher levels. Proof that chemicals from the quarry and the polygon have made it into area lakes, rivers and streams can be found in several studies, as well as the strange colors – bright oranges and greens – that they turn from time to time.

High salt levels have been found in residents’ well water, Sadoviy said. “It’s a problem, because many people still get their water from wells in Kalush. They don’t have any other option.”

HCB has, too. He says it is no coincidence that regional health records in over the past several years show a spike in cancers in the local population.

In a study conducted in 2001, 80 grams of salt per liter of water was found in wells in Kalush. That number is likely even higher now, Sadoviy said. To compare, the amount of natural salt found in water is about 0.5 grams per liter.

In the nearby Kropyvnyk and Sivka rivers, the amount of salt is about 50 grams per liter, according to tests conducted in 2013. Both rivers flow into the larger Dniester, where measurements have shown levels as high as 8 grams per liter. That number is expected to rise as more water from the Dombrovsky quarry leaks out.

The environmentalists say they can’t be certain the walls of the quarry will crumble or a sink hole could open up and release water from it or toxic waste from the polygon into more area water sources this year, or in many years. But what is certain, Dovbenchuk said, is “it will eventually happen.”

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