Floating boats, they dropped missiles. After the war, it may turn out that in the Black Sea you can neither fish nor swim – an ecologist interview

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Because of Russia's military aggression, the Black Sea may find itself on the brink of environmental disaster (Photo: Colin Mayfield/Siba/Reuters)

Because of Russia’s military aggression, the Black Sea may find itself on the brink of environmental disaster (Photo: Colin Mayfield/Siba/Reuters)

Because of the fighting, toxic substances from downed missiles, sunken equipment, submarines and destroyed sewage treatment plants enter the waters of the Black Sea. All this threatens underwater and surface life not only in Ukraine but also in the entire region.

Destroyed cities, dozens of destroyed institutions, and thousands of lives are just the tip of the iceberg of the losses Russia inflicts on Ukraine every day. During the war, the country suffered severe blows to the environment.

Today, environmentalists are sounding the alarm: over the course of four months of continuous military activity of the aggressor in the Black Sea, its ecosystem is suffering devastating damage.

In 2014, Ukraine began implementing the European Maritime Strategy Directive, then a baseline assessment of the Black Sea ecosystem was carried out. It turned out that the main source of pollution with toxic chemicals in peacetime was rivers, in particular, the Danube. With it, petroleum hydrocarbons, chlorine, organofluoro compounds, and heavy metals fell into the sea – the result of the life of large cities, agriculture and companies.

Now a new powerful threat to the Black Sea has appeared – Russian military aggression. Because of the fighting, toxic substances from shells, sunken vehicles and submarines also seep into the sea water. Destroyed water treatment plants in occupied territories are thrown into fire, where hazardous materials can fall directly into the sea.

In addition, dolphins die from sound noise, and oil stains threaten the existence of unique species of birds.

Viktor Komorin, director of the Ukrainian Research Center for Marine Ecology, spoke about the consequences of this effect.

– How does Russian military activity in the Black Sea affect its condition and what harm does it cause?

The first category of water pollution during the war is related to petroleum products – fuels and lubricants on Russian warships and aircraft. We already understand that among them there are many copies of the old model, which were built without taking into account environmental aspects and which now cause great harm.

Submarines also release spent rocket fuel into the water when launching missiles. In the form of a film, petroleum products can spread on the surface of the sea, partially dissolve in water, and the heavy parts gradually settle to the bottom. The last category is the most problematic – in the case of large storms, they will all enter the aquatic environment and biogeocenosis (aggregates of plants, animals and microorganisms) for toxic effects.

But even such cruising ships, for example, would not cause such catastrophic damage to the ecosystem as a sunken. There, the volume of the discharge is much larger, and large combat units, such as the sunken cruiser Moscow, in general may have nuclear weapons on board.

The second category of contamination relates to ammunition that ends up in the water. They contain explosives containing heavy metals – nickel, tungsten, tin, lead, aluminum and zinc. They also contain plasticizers and harmful stabilizers – nitrates, nitrates, nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose. Not to mention incendiary weapons, such as white phosphorous, which can also reach seawater.

Can land combat pose risks to the sea environment?

– Yes, due to the destruction of infrastructure and processing facilities in the occupied territories, toxic pollutants can reach the sea unimpeded. As was the case in Azovstal, where among the residential areas the Russians leveled warehouses and reservoirs with toxic substances, which were stored there at an intermediate stage of the industrial level. This material could have entered the sea, but at the moment we can’t access it and we don’t know for sure if it did. However, there is little optimism: in 2019, some Azovstal tanks were not in very good condition, cracks were found on them, and today the situation can be aggravated by explosions. We also do not have accurate data on the safety of treatment facilities in other uncontrolled areas.

– What damage to the flora and fauna of the Black Sea can cause hostilities in its waters?

– First, there is a direct impact of explosions on the surface of the water due to the death of marine animals. Another risk factor is acoustic noise. In submarines, the sonar operates at a certain frequency, which has a very negative effect on the senses of dolphins. They get a picture of the environment thanks to their sonar, so the effects of ultrasound and noise from the ships push the dolphins into fishing traps and force them to throw ashore. Now, as never before, a large number of such cases have been recorded on the coasts of Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

But for the flora of the Black Sea, much harm may be done at this stage, if there is no widespread run-off of petroleum products to the bottom of sunken ships. In the same case of acute poisoning, plants and animals can die very quickly.

– What are the possible consequences for the person?

Water pollution will greatly affect the quality of fish and seafood. The fish themselves may not die from the toxic substances accumulated in the water, but they may be toxic to humans if ingested.

If we talk about the post-war period, until all water treatment plants on the Black Sea coast and sewage systems in cities are restored, then the problem of safe bathing will be acute. Not to mention the complex and extensive demining process, because now the waters are filled with mines with great density. Sometimes, individual mines would set off and float automatically, sinking and hiding from view. There have already been cases when they were caught on the coast of Turkey.

Could the situation spread to other countries?

The sea has no limits. Therefore, substances entering the water, for example, near Snake Island, can be transported to the coast of Romania or Bulgaria. There have always been international projects in which all the Black Sea states are involved, which have been actively supporting us since the beginning of the war and, in the event that part of the waters are not reached, are monitoring our territory.

But in nature, there is clearly a cumulative effect and a real scale of the tragedy that we can only assess later. This could be detrimental to coastal and marine ecosystems throughout the region: for example, new toxic substances will appear or Red Book species of plants and animals will disappear.

Can Ukraine control and resolve this issue today?

– If we return the lands stretching from the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov and the Crimean coast to the northwestern shelf, then today we have lost more than half of the access to the surface waters of the Black Sea. In addition, we currently do not have the opportunity to explore even the controlled coasts of the UAE – from a security point of view, there is no access to water extraction.

But we still have some ideas, because we can study the situation with the help of satellite images. However, in order to record the event, the location must be determined, so we still focus on the information in the media about the fallen or flooded Russian equipment.

Now we see oil spills from destroyed ships and collapsed planes in real time, we can monitor their movement. This oil film goes to clean areas where there are national nature parks, such as the estuaries of Tuzla or the Svyatoslav White Coast. They are an important international asset to the global ecosystem.

We are now registering all these cases for inclusion in the general list of environmental crimes in Ukraine’s case before international courts for damages from the Russian Federation. It is hard to even imagine how much it will cost to restore ecosystems and how long it will take.

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