For many years, residents of Kherson regions adjacent to Crimea have been complaining about emissions into the air and the location of dangerous waste on territory located close to a huge chemical factory. However, due to the occupation of the peninsula and indifference of Ukrainian officials, people have been left on their own with this problem.
“We have never had such an amount of sick children as we have now. Half of students have been excused from participation in physical education classes due to their health, even though in the 1980s there were very few cases like that. Now, many children have problems with digestion and are sick with epilepsy. There are many village residents that have cancer,” said Vitaliy Burda, director of the Pershokostyankynivka School.
According to him, when in the 1960s, they started building Crimean Titan near the village, near Armyansk, the builders warned the locals, “you will not feel the effect from the plant right away, but it will show up for sure in 20-30 years.” “In the 1980s, we, with a delegation from neighboring village Chervonyi Chaban, went to the Crimean ecological prosecutor in order to complain about emissions from the factory. However, they only laughed at us,” said Vitaliy Serhiyovych.
“We all have one diagnosis – cancer”
Crimean Titan, located in Pershokostyankynivka, Chaplynka district, right at the border with the peninsula, can be seen from almost any direction. For many years in a row, life in this village has been closely connected to this chemical giant, which is also the biggest producer of titanium dioxide in Eastern Europe: local residents worked there and this factory paid significant money in taxes into the village budget. Stable income was earned by the village for storing production waste in acid storage containers and phosphogypsum repositories located on its territory.
Villagers have complained about health issues and problems with environmental pollution to top government bodies many times. The recent scandalous case was when a student from the Pershokostyankynivka School sent a letter to the presidential administration shortly before Yanukovych fled. Due to the following armed takeover of Crimea and annexation of the peninsula by Russia, nobody cares about Crimean Titan and its emissions and waste.
One of the recent attempts to attract attention to this problem was the organization of a roundtable in January 2014 in Pershokostyankynivka. The topic of the event was: “Influence of the activity of Private JSC Crimean Titan on the environment, life and health of people.” Alarming information was prepared by the Chaplynka District State Administration and announced at a meeting of the regional committee on ecological safety and extreme situations of the Kherson Regional State Administration.
“Residents of the Lake Syvash district, Chaplynka district regularly suffer from emissions, especially in the village Pershokostyankynivka. Sometimes smog reaches the city. The consequences of the choking chemical fog are scratchy throats, shortness of breath, and general fatigue. After the emissions settle in gardens, the fruits and vegetables die,” Serhiy Lepskyi, former head of the Chaplynka District State Administration at the time, said in a report.
the report, it also says that they regularly demanded the enterprise’s administration to comply with environmental protection legislation. “After numerous requests from the Chaplynka District State Administration, in March 2011, the State Ecological Inspectorate in Kherson region, together with the Republican Committee on Environmental Protection of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, conducted a checkup of Private JSC Crimean Titan, as a result of which it was revealed that the factory was violating a whole range of requirements. The State Ecological Inspectorate filed administrative charges against the management and fined them,” the report said.
The last checkup on whether Crimean Titan complied with the requirements of environmental protection legislation, according to Serhiy Salata, head of the ecological monitoring, auditing and atmosphere department of the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, was conducted back at the beginning of 2013.However, in order to receive more detailed information, he sent us to the Chaplynka and Kalanchak district administrations, who in the past, signed rental agreements for the land with this factory. Private JSC Ukrainian Chemical Products (this is the name under which Crimean Titan was re-registered in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea) also refused to provide any other information. “Our company does not have a dominant position on the market, it is not a natural monopoly and it does not have unique or special rights or information about the environmental situation or about accidents or dangerous natural conditions or any other extraordinary events that have happened or might happen that are dangerous to the health or safety of residents,” said Vadym Tymoshchuk, head of the executive board Private JSC Ukrainian Chemical Products.
Since this company has been paying the environmental tax to the central, regional and local budgets in recent years, we went for a comment to the Chief Department of the State Fiscal Service in Ukraine in Kherson region. “(In recent years) Private JSC Crimean Titan (Ukrainian Chemical Products) has provided tax reports on the environmental tax to the Chaplynka department of the Skadovsk State Tax Inspectorate and paid taxes for the storage of waste in special locations on the territories of the Hryhorivka and Pershokostyankynivka village councils. However, the company submitted a report in 2015 on the absence of objects subject to the environmental tax in the reporting year. That is why tax reporting on the environmental tax in the current year has not been submitted by the company,” said Roman Kalnytskyi, deputy head of the regional department of the State Fiscal Service.
In Chaplynka district, they are also not very willing to comment on the situation. It was very hard to get any information even from Pershokostyankynivka Village Council Head Tetyana Mykhaylovska. The current border status of these territories, constant pressure due to the closeness of the Russian army in occupied Crimea, transportation and the energy blockade of the peninsula by public activists are some of the reasons for the suspicious attitude of local government officials toward journalists.
The first thing Tetyana Mykhaylovska stressed when talking to me was the significant increase in the illness and death rates from cancer in Pershokostyankynivka. By the way, at the aforementioned roundtable last year in this village’s neighbors – the heads of the Hryhorivka and Pavlivka village councils – were also complaining.
“We all have the same diagnosis: cancer. If you were to come and see our cemetery and see what the majority of people died from, it would be cancer,” said Tetyana Volodymyrivna.
According to her, this has to do with emissions into the air from Crimean Titan and with the utilization of waste from chemical production on territory under the jurisdiction of the village council. Acid storage containers are even much scarier than the factory itself,” said the head of the village council. “We are upset at the fact that the rent agreement for the land where the waste is located was signed in 2007 by the Chaplynka District State Administration for 49 years without asking for our consent. Thus, since then they have been regularly paying us rent, but it is impossible to store such waste on territory very close to the village for such a long time! That is why we are fighting; we want local residents to be paid financial compensation similar to the one that people who suffer from the Chernobyl nuclear accident receive.”
Locals who we met on village streets told us that because of emissions from the factory, their sheets that they used to dry outside have been completely ruined. They also mentioned the head of a local farm who built a country house near the acid storage containers and then died from cancer at the age of 53.
“Crimean Titan, in the past, also did not provide truthful information regarding the influence of its activity on the environment and our health. Now, even more, it will not do it since it is located on occupied territory,” said Vitaliy Burda, director of the school.
“We don’t have any contact with Titan”
In order to get closer to the phosphogypsum storage units located right on the border with Crimea, now we need to get permission from the State Border Service of Ukraine. Even after that, it is not very easy to get there. A short distance from the village, but by going completely off-road, it can only be done in an armored personnel carrier. On both sides of the muddy track, there are minefields and near the acid storage and phosphogypsum repositories, there is the peninsula Ad, which was occupied by the Russian Army in 2014. That is why no one can even dream about Ukrainian ecologists getting there.
“Our citizens also suffer from cancer,” said Tetyana Kurbanova, land manager from the Chervonyi Chaban Village Council in Chaplynka district. “A few years ago we even organized a meeting on this issue. Of course, we all connected it to the work of Crimean Titan since even before it was impossible to control the level of its emissions. Now even more so. However, since among us there are many people that work at the factory, we all know how they cheated there during inspections. For example, they installed some very expensive filters, demonstrated them to the ecological inspectors and each time the inspectors left happy. Then, at night, they would take off those filters and emissions would continue to go into the air. Sometimes because of that it was impossible to breathe and even the leaves on the trees would twist up.”
Now, Crimean Titan rents 365.7 hectares of land in Chervonyi Chaban. According to Liliya Simeyko, village council secretary, the factory pays rent and promised to continue to pay at least for the next year.
“However, they did call us in September and warned us that due to problems with supplies of raw materials they would not be paying rent. It would have been a serious disadvantage to our community since out of our annual budget, which is UAH 1.65 million, UAH 500,000 was paid by Crimean Titan. Later, it seems like they changed their mind,” said Andriy Suchok, village council head. “In fact, we do not have full-fledged relations and contacts with the management of this company right now. Earlier, we met and communicated with them. That was in the past. We regularly raised the issue of emissions and continue to do it at the district level. Even though the factory is not working at full capacity, smoke continues to come from there like always! They have never complied with any sanitary/ecological norms. Their filters used to only work during inspections. Now nobody even cares about what is going on there. That, of course, influences the health of people and cattle. A lot of cattle suffer from leukemia.
However, Leonid Mosin, chief doctor of the Chervonyi Chaban Hospital, said that the influence of this chemical giant on the cancer rate in the village is exaggerated. “Yes, emissions from Crimean Titan influence the respiratory system and plants, but there is no direct connection to the rise in cancerous diseases. For example, right now we have 3,000 people registered who are sick with cancer. We had problems where right next to Crimean Titan there was a polish paint factory, whose employees really suffered from bladder cancer. However, that plant was closed long ago. The only thing I completely agree with is that we need to continue to take air samples and study the influence of Crimean Titan’s emissions in order to get all of the answers to these issues. Moreover, emissions from the plant mainly happen from evening until morning,” he said.
“It is impossible to check what exactly gets emitted into the air since the factory is located in occupied Crimea. This is really one of the main problems,” said Hanna Zahorulko, head of the Kalanchak District State Administration. “Basically, nobody controls what levels of protection exist at Crimean Titan, how emissions and production waste is filtered and what chemicals are used there. Instead, according to statistics, in the Chervonyi Chaban and Myrnyi villages, there are lots of people who get diseases of the heart and cancer. Of course, there is no doubt that the chemical plant influences that. In order to prove this connection, special testing must be conducted, but nobody has done that yet. Information about the level of emissions from Crimean Titan or the condition of its process water pumps has never been publicly available, even before the occupation of the peninsula. This year since I have been working as head of the district state administration, nobody from the management of the company has come to me with an offer to meet and discuss important issues.
Information on Crimean Titan that was prepared by the previous management of the Chaplynka District State Administration also raises a lot of questions. “Sometimes emissions from the factory reach our city. Last time it happened in the summer of 2012 when the southern district of Chaplynka was covered with poisonous smog with a specific smell. There are issues with the financial relationship with Crimean Titan. The plant puts its dangerous waste on the territory of the Hryhorivka and Pershokostyankynivka village councils on a total area of 1,144.5 hectares. Shortly before the occupation of Crimea, the company, with a decision of the Sevastopol Administrative Appellate Court, gained the right to pay the environmental tax with a discounted adjusted coefficient. As a result, the amount of the environmental tax that was paid into local, regional and state budgets decreased by several-fold. Due to the events in Crimea, there is a high probability that rent payments and environmental taxes will not go to our budgets at all,” said Serhiy Lepskyi in his report from last year.
A student from Pershokostyankynivka addressed the issue to the Ukrainian president and received a response from the Chaplynka District State Administration, which said that part of the samples from the air taken in 2012 and 2013, in some cases, exceeded the maximum allowed norm for the concentration of nitrogen dioxide. Those present at the aforementioned roundtable that took place last year in the same village reminded that the testing conducted by the Crimean association “Ecology and the World” in 2000-2001 on the territory of Crimean villages Perekop and Filativka located right at the border with Kherson region, showed that the soil was polluted with lead, copper, zinc, chromium, arsenic, antimony and cadmium. Out of 963 tests of the air in Chaplynka district in 2003-2005, there were 21 cases where the pollution exceeded the maximum allowed norm.
In order to prove or disprove the danger of emissions from Crimean Titan and their influence on the health of residents in villages in the Lake Syvash area of Kherson region, the management of the Chaplynka and Kalanchak districts, for many years in a row have raised an issue about launching a system of constant monitoring. It would be possible to do that by planning, constructing and certifying autonomous modules for constant monitoring of air pollution indicators. However, the issue has not moved any further than just talking.
Instead, at the end of April of this year, Crimean media spread information that their “prosecutors” found that Crimean Titan was working without permits for emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere. However, their officials will probably not care about the ecological influence of the company on Kherson region. That is why the carelessness of the Ukrainian government in this issue seems even more shocking.
Even more questions come up to the owners of Crimean Titan, which include notorious Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. A year ago, Reuters agency published an investigation during which it revealed a scheme of gas sales through Russian Gazprom to Firtash’s companies for much lower prices. In spring, this oligarch was charged in the U.S.A. with giving a bribe to Indian officials to receive a license for mining development in India, according to a press release from the Department of Justice of the U.S.A. on April 2. In June of this year, in Ukraine, according to the Facebook page of Arsen Avakov, Minister of Internal Affairs, 46 real estate objects belonging to the Ostchem group of companies, which is part of Dmytro Firtash’s Group DF, were arrested. According to Avakov, the National Police of Ukraine are currently investigating two criminal cases directly connected to Firtash. “One of them is connected to Ostchem in accordance with article 191 part 5 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine – causing damage to the country in the amount of UAH 5,742 billion,” Avakov said on December 2.
However, even if these criminal investigations are completed and Firtash faces the court, Crimean Titan will most likely continue to work on occupied territory. Residents in villages in Kherson region on the border, while burying their relatives, will often connect those deaths to the influence of the chemical factory nearby. Just like before, they will not get answers to their questions. And just like Vitaliy Burda, director of the Pershokostyankynivka school, will continue to see smoke over Crimean Titan. “Thanks to the blockade of the peninsula, they started coughing much less,” he said. “But nobody knows what will happen next.”
This material was prepared with the support of the investigative journalism project in Eastern Europe SCOOP.