Inside a Ukrainian war zone, another fight rages—for clean air

The port city of Mariupol battles pollution from iron and steel plants decades out of date, but activists are making headway.

An early morning view of the Azovstal steel plant's blast furnace in Mariupol, Ukraine.

The eastern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol is less than 10 miles from the front line of the country’s long-simmering conflict with Russia, and in the years since 2014, its residents have suffered shelling, rocket fire, and the relentless anxiety of life in a war zone. But some are worried about a less tangible threat that may be even more dangerous: pollution from the two ancient, hulking iron and steel plants that drive the city’s economy.

Mariupol is one of the most polluted cities in a nation whose air is among the dirtiest in Europe. Mired in war with its mighty neighbor, beset by corruption and dominated by a small number of super-rich oligarchs who wield outsize political influence, Ukraine has allowed its antiquated factories to pump out toxic pollution at levels far greater than permitted elsewhere on the continent.

“You can see the smoke—sometimes it’s orange; sometimes it’s gray. There’s a sour smell,” says Viktoriia Pikuz, a teacher who lives about half a mile from the Ilyich Iron and Steel Works, which opened in 1897. Azovstal, the city’s other big steel plant, began production in the 1930s. Soot and ash darken clothing and surfaces, Pikuz says. “When you open the window for a few hours, you’ll have your windowsill covered.”

While Mariupol’s pollution is among the worst, Ukraine’s other big industrial cities—Kryvyi Rih, Dnipro, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia—also have severe air quality problems. Dirty air, which is strongly linked to heart disease, cancer, dementia, and many other illnesses, cuts short an estimated 46,000 Ukrainians’ lives annually, according to the 2020 State of Global Air report.

Until a few years ago, Ukraine’s regulations for polluters had barely been updated since the Soviet era, says Martin Skalsky, head of Arnika, a Czech environment group aiding Ukranian activists. While some have now been tightened, companies have been slow to undertake the expensive overhauls needed to comply.

The oligarchs are a big obstacle, working behind the scenes against tougher requirements, says Mykhailo Amosov, a heavy industry expert at Ecoaction, an advocacy group in the capital, Kyiv. Activists say corruption is a problem too. 

In 2011, Pikuz learned in her eighth month of pregnancy that her baby had died. “If you want to have a child, you have to move away,” she says the doctor told her. Pikuz says she suffers thyroid trouble, with growths on the gland that must be monitored regularly for signs of cancer. She’s never touched cigarettes, but last spring, her doctor said a cough she’d developed sounded like that of a lifelong smoker. When he told her she had severe allergies, she says, “I asked, ‘To what?’ And he said, ‘Take a look out of the window.’"

Defending the country, then the air

Experts say reliable data on Mariupol’s pollution and illnesses linked to it are lacking—a problem in itself. Vaagn Mnatsakanyan, head of Mariupol’s energy, labor, and environment department, says he’s seen no evidence suggesting higher illness levels in the city than elsewhere in Ukraine. Officials plan to expand air monitoring, he adds. 

In the meantime, one Mariupol group has recorded levels of PM2.5 at more than 50 times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum. These dangerous particles of air pollution are so small that they can pass into the bloodstream, where they can wreak havoc with many of the body’s critical systems and cause a plethora of diseases.

A 2018 study of soil samples found the heavy metals mercury, cadmium, zinc, arsenic, lead, and chromium. Maksym Soroka, an environmental scientist at Clean Air for Ukraine and one of the authors, says such soil contamination comes from pollution in the air. Both in the soil and in the air, heavy metals can cause neurological disorders, as well as cancer, kidney disease, and a host of other adverse health effects.

Ukraine’s conflict with Russia grinds on nearby, and tensions are now rising again as Russian troop movements fan fears of invasion. But the fighting’s direct impact on Mariupol has eased since 2015, when a rocket attack killed 30 in a residential area, a barrage of shelling spread terror, and Russian-backed rebels threatened the city. For now, things are calm in the city, but land mines dot its outskirts, Russia has restricted access to its economically vital port, and danger always looms. As many as 100,000 people displaced by the conflict have swollen the population to about 450,000.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a rightful part of Russia. In 2014, his troops annexed Crimea, about 250 miles from Mariupol, and Russian-backed separatists seized territory near the city. In some ways, Mariupol’s traumatic experience helped pave the way for an upsurge in environmental activism, says Valery Averyanov, a health care administrator and air pollution activist.

At first, the city’s residents came together to assist Ukraine’s poorly equipped military, Averyanov says. “I gave my sleeping bag, my tent, my TV to the soldiers” and then got friends to donate money for clothes, boots, tools, batteries, even toilet paper, he says.

Although few were focused on pollution’s dangers while their city was threatened militarily, the same core group of activists began demanding healthier air when things stabilized, he says. “From the war front line, they moved to the environmental front line.”

Are upgrades enough?

Both steel factories in Mariupol belong to the Metinvest Group, which for its part says it is updating its factories. Metinvest is controlled by Rinat Akhmetov, said to be Ukraine’s richest man. The Azovstal plant uses equipment that is “totally obsolete and outdated,” says Arnika’s Skalsky.

Street protests in 2018 and 2019 focused attention on pollution, but Metinvest and its owner, Akhmetov, are powerful. Mariupol’s mayor is a former Metinvest executive, and activists say many other officials also have close ties to the firm. Akhmetov controls much of the local media, his company employs 34,000 in Mariupol, and taxes from Metinvest cover more than 30 percent of the city’s budget.

“It’s very hard to stay independent in the city when Akhmetov can buy anyone,” says city council member and pollution activist Maksym Borodin.

Environment chief Mnatsakanyan says the plants must be modernized, “but at the same time we are talking about the economics of the city, we are talking about salaries, about jobs, and we have to find some balance.” 

Vitaliy Kovalenko, Metinvest’s environmental management director, says the company has spent $665 million modernizing the two plants since 2012, and 80 percent of those upgrades exceeded Ukraine’s pollution requirements. Progress has been slow, he conceded, in part because the conflict prompted an exodus of those with engineering and construction expertise, making it impossible to attract foreign workers.

Metinvest also had to pour money into repairing facilities outside Mariupol that were damaged by fighting, he says. Still, emissions from the Ilyich and Azovstal plants have fallen by 35 percent since 2011, and the company plans another $529 million in modernization and pollution reduction by 2025, he says. “Definitely it must be better, and that’s our target.” 

But Metinvest wants more than the seven years the government has set for companies to meet more stringent pollution limits. “It’s impossible to do it” that fast, because of financing constraints and the waiting lists of contractors who can do the work, Kovalenko says, adding that 15 years would be more realistic.

Borodin says Metinvest’s upgrades so far have been focused on boosting productivity, with any pollution reductions only a side effect, a claim Kovalenko rejects.

Even so, Borodin says, the improvement since 2012 is noticeable. “I don’t have a word for the situation” back then, when he first started organizing demonstrations, he recalls. “Smoke—it was like a substance that you could touch,” with a strong chemical smell.

Borodin was one of only a few in those early days of activism, but no more. Since a popular uprising toppled the country’s Russia-friendly president in 2014, Ukrainians have increasingly realized that they can drive change, and Mariupol’s pollution protests are part of that, Skalsky says. “It’s kind of a wave” of activism across the country. “People started to understand that they have a right to do something, they have a right to a better quality of life.”

Beth Gardiner is the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution.

Serhii Korovainyi is a Ukrainian documentary and portrait photographer who focuses on the topics of ecology and conflict.

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