In late May, a large plume of pink smoke erupted from a chemical plant and rose above apartment buildings in Ukraine’s eastern city of Severodonetsk. The smoke was toxic — it came from a tank of nitric acid that was struck by Russian military forces.
“Do not come out of shelters!” the region’s governor, Sergiy Gaiday, said on Telegram, following the attack. “Nitric acid is dangerous if inhaled, swallowed, and in contact with skin.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, exploding chemical plants have become a frightening reality for its citizens, but they’re just one example of the staggering toll that war is taking on the nation’s environment. Rockets are polluting the soil and groundwater; fires threaten to expel radioactive particles; and warships have reportedly killed dolphins in the Black Sea.
Shelling or airstrikes by Russia again hit a chemical plant, allegedly a nitric-acid facility in #Severodonetsk. Below the health warning issues by local authorities on the air pollution risks, urging people to stay inside, shared by our Ukrainian partner. Location to follow soon pic.twitter.com/kXW9ac9K35
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) June 1, 2022
Though not as visible as the thousands of lost lives, the environmental costs of war are insidious, quietly harming people and wildlife for decades after fighting stops. Indeed, armed conflict is one of the leading predictors of animal declines and a major source of greenhouse gas emissions (the US military alone emits countries’ worth of carbon dioxide). War is also linked to human health problems, including cancer and birth defects.
Ukrainian environmental groups are keeping track of the damage, which some experts say amount to war crimes. So far, they’ve logged nearly 270 cases of potential harm, ranging from damage to power plants to impacts on marine ecosystems. Now, the question is: Will Russia be held accountable for them?
An environmental crisis in Ukraine
Ukraine covers less than 6 percent of Europe’s land area, but it’s home to more than a third of the continent’s biodiversity. It’s also highly industrialized, with hundreds of chemical plants, nearly 150 coal mines, and more than a dozen nuclear reactors — including Europe’s largest.
So, one obvious problem is the destruction of these facilities. In March, shelling in the northern Ukrainian town of Novoselytsya caused an ammonia leak at a fertilizer factory, threatening residents by contaminating groundwater and soil. Then there are those exploding tanks of nitric acid. Meanwhile, damage to coal-fired power plants can cause electrical water pumps to fail, allowing contaminated water in mines to spill over and pollute the groundwater.
(In 2014, Russia fueled a separatist movement in the coal and steel-producing region of Ukraine called Donbas. A year later, the UN estimated that it would cost roughly $70 million to clean up the environment and restore the water supply, Al Jazeera reported.)
Russia has also attacked oil and gas storage facilities, lighting up the sky with explosions that pollute the air and release carbon dioxide. (This video shows the aftermath of an attack on an oil terminal and a gas pipeline.)
The stuff inside the rockets that both sides are using can poison the environment, too, according to the Ukrainian advocacy group Center for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction. When they explode, artillery rockets can produce a number of noxious substances including hydrogen cyanide vapor and nitrogen oxides, which can cause acid rain, Ecoaction said.
In April, the Ukrainian army shot down a Russian missile, and some of the debris fell on an agricultural site, leaking toxic chemicals into the soil and water, CNN’s Ivana Kottasová reported. Officials told people living nearby not to drink water from wells and there were reports of dead fish in a river several miles away, Kottasová reported.
“Now and in the future, heavy metals will be in our groundwater and soil,” Evgenia Zasiadko, who leads Ecoaction’s climate work, told the nonprofit Global Citizen. “We’re an agricultural country, and when it’s not an active war, I don’t know how we’re going to rebuild anything because it’s going to be polluted.”
Can Ukraine get reparations for “environmental crimes”?
While war might seem lawless, it’s actually governed by a set of international laws including the Geneva Conventions, some of which prohibit severe and lasting damage to the environment. Under some circumstances, the International Criminal Court (ICC) considers those actions war crimes.
Countries have used these laws to seek environmental reparations before. In 1991, amid the Gulf War, Iraqi military forces set fire to hundreds of oil wells in Kuwait and intentionally spilled millions of barrels into the Persian Gulf.
The environmental toll was staggering: tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide and smoke poisoned the air, driving up respiratory illnesses and damaging crops. Hundreds of sea birds perished. In response, the UN ordered Iraq to pay Kuwait around $3 billion, as part of a much larger reparations package (that Iraq finished paying in February).
But it’s incredibly hard to prove that environmental damage violates international law, Shireen Daft, an expert in international law and lecturer at Macquarie University, told Vox. Ukraine would have to show that the destruction is “widespread, long-term, and severe,” she said.
And even then, there’s no easy route to prosecute Russia, she added. The ICC tries individuals, not nations, and Ukraine will also face hurdles if it seeks environmental reparations through the UN’s International Court of Justice, she said.
“The law is lacking the strength needed to provide concrete protection to the environment,” Daft said. “And in a situation like Ukraine, where there is so much potential for environmental damage, that is deeply concerning.”
That’s one reason why some scientists have called for a new Geneva Convention that more explicitly enshrines protections for the environment during war. A division of the UN called the International Law Commission has also developed a set of non-binding principles that help clarify how international war laws apply to the environment.
Other experts, however, are confident that the global community will hold Russia accountable, one way or another. Russia’s actions toward the environment violate the laws of war, said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for International Environmental Law, especially considering that the war itself is illegal under international laws (because it’s a war of aggression).
“It may take months or years or even decades, but Russia will be held accountable for this,” Muffett told Vox. “I don’t see how Russia avoids that outcome.”