An Ecological Disaster Hits Crimea. We Take A Look At What Happened
6 September, 2018

Toxic gases have been in the air for two weeks in and around the Crimean city of Armyansk. All the children have now been evacuated from the area.

The occupying government have explained that acid from the local chemical plant Crimean Titan has dried and now actively emits sulfur trioxide into the air. This toxic gas is very dangerous, it causes rashes and affects respiratory organs. When sulfur trioxide and water (including water in the air) come into contact, sulfurous acid is produced.

Photo credit: Igor Burdyga/HROMADSKE

“This sulfur trioxide forms sulfur fog, a phenomenon that is commonly referred to as acid fog. It is this acid fog that the locals saw, felt soreness in their throat, pain in the eyes and [other] unpleasant sensations,” Crimean ecologist Marharyta Lytvynenko explains to Hromadske.

The ecological disaster has been so vast that residents of mainland Ukraine, in the areas where it borders with annexed Crimea, reported symptoms. According to Hromadske’s data, around 23 school children were suspected of having the symptoms of a chemical poisoning just in the Preobrazhenka village in Kherson region. The residents of these areas have been in such panic that the shops and pharmacies in their areas had run out of medical masks.

What Happened?

The local residents started noticing that something was not right two weeks ago, On August 23, a coloured fog appeared above the city of Armyansk and by the next morning, everything was covered in a rusty film. Leaves began falling from the trees. People posted pictures on social media of raspberries, strawberries and peppers from their gardens that had turned rotten.

On September 4, the occupying government in Crimea promised to promptly disclose information on the harmful emissions in the affected region, but open source information on the substance is yet to be released. The Crimean Emergencies Ministry’s website did not mention a single word on the chemical emissions in Armyansk until today. Today’s entry, titled “No threats to population,” describes the various measures that Russia’s Emergency Ministry has been taking. Those include rinsing the road surfaces with water and opening up a laboratory. 225 people and 18 machines are working on the situation, the Emergency Ministry stated.

Photo credit: Anatoliy Krymskiy/RFE/RL

The occupying Crimean “administration” has been publishing data on the emission of harmful substances into the atmosphere for all cities and regions in Crimea. Except for Armyansk and the Dzhankoy and Krasnoperekopsk districts –  the areas affected by current situation.  

Conflicting Information from the Occupying Government

When traces of sulfur trioxide in the atmosphere were first reported, in response to posts in the media and social networks, the occupying government in Crimea denied the fact the emissions were harmful and stated that it was not dangerous to anyone’s health.

On August 31, Russia’s Interfax news agency stated, referencing the peninsula’s head Sergey Aksyonov, that Crimean Titan will not stop operating and the acid tanks are urgently filled with water. That same night, the streets of Armyansk were treated with a soda solution.

Photo credit: Anatoliy Krymskiy/RFE/RL

On September 1, the traditional first day back at school, the special assemblies in Crimean schools were not canceled, just cut slightly short.

READ MORE: Cut Off: Occupied Crimea is Drying Out

But then, on September 4, Aksyonov made an emergency announcement, stating that “last night,” the amount of harmful substance in the air had exceeded the maximum levels. Children of pre-school and school age started to be evacuated from Armyansk. According to the Crimean Ministry of Health, this amounts to close to four thousand people.

Ukrainian Reaction

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko referred to the situation as an “ecological catastrophe” and asked for the Armyansk children to be transported to the Kherson region for treatment. He ordered the regional administrations to complete the relevant documentation and simplify the administrational border crossing.

Photo credit: Anatoliy Krymskiy/RFE/RL

In mainland Ukraine, 634 children in two districts of Kherson region have now received medical checks, according to ombudsperson Lyudmila Denisova. Nobody was hospitalized. This was confirmed by the head doctor at the Kherson Regional Children’s Hospital Inna Kholodnyak.

READ MORE: Unprecedented Water Crisis in Annexed Crimea

“Indeed there are children that have the symptoms: conjunctivitis, teary eyes. But we cannot assert that it’s due to chemical poisoning. All of them are at home, their condition is stable. We’re watching their condition and if there’s a need: we will hospitalize them,” she said.

What happens now?

On the same day, it was reported that Crimean Titan had now stopped operations. As of September 4, four of the eight furnaces were turned off. It will take a few days for them to be shut off completely.

The occupying government seem rather confused over the further damage the toxic emissions could cause. Before 2014, the North Crimean canal supplied water to the acid storage. During the closure of this artery, almost all of the 30 million cubic meters of water has dried up.

Photo credit: Anatoliy Krymskiy/RFE/RL

“The process of filling up [the canal] will begin in a month or two. A pipe needs laying down,” Aksyonov said during a trip to Armyansk on September 4.

But no one in Crimea can say where exactly they are going to lay this pipe. One option they are looking into is the Karkinit Bay in the Black Sea. But they will have to examine how the acid will react when diluted with sea water and if it will make the situation worse. This will take three days to examine in a laboratory.

READ MORE: Dozens of Violations Recorded in Russia-Occupied Crimea, UN Reports

If they do manage to find a water source, the acid storage will require 1.8 million cubic meters of water per month.

Another option the occupying government is considering is treating the acid storage. However, it’s so far unclear as to what they would use to neutralize the acid.

Photo credit: Igor Burdyga/HROMADSKE

But, according to Crimean ecologist Lytvynenko these would hardly help. Properly resolving the problem would take a very long time.

“It would take several million cubic meters of water. It is unclear where they would get [that much water.] So they will need to take this water from someone. Water reservoirs will not be able to handle so much water. When you extract so much water from the reservoirs, it becomes salty,” she said.  

What is Known About the Crimean Titan Plant?

The Crimean Titan plant is located in the north of annexed Crimea. It is one of eastern Europe’s largest producers of titanium dioxide, which is used in the production of plastics and rubbers, among other things.

Since 1971, the waste from the Crimean Titan plant was stored openly, in a acid storage space, which is over 40 square kilometres in size. Before 2014, the acid storage was regularly supplied with water from the North Crimean canal, which prevented air contamination.

Crimean Titan belongs to Dmytro Firtash, one of the only Ukrainian businessmen whose assets in Crimea were not “nationalized” by the peninsula’s Russia-appointed government. After 2014, the Crimean Titan PJSC handed over management to the Moscow-based Titanium Investments Ltd.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Band Plays Protest Concert Near Annexed Crimea

/By Serhiy Mokryshyn

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko and Maria Romanenko