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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Danger chimique majeur sur le Dombass

by Stéphane Aubouard

Major Chemical Danger in the Donbas

Translated Monday 25 May 2015, by Gene Zbikowski

The fighting going on around Concern Stirol’s ammonia plant in Gorlovka could cause an unprecedented ecological catastrophe. Reportage.

Gorlovka, Ukraine, from our special correspondent.

The crater, which is almost ten feet across, looks like a brackish pond at the heart of the industrial site. And yet, it isn’t a simple backwater that György [1], the watchman at the Stirol chemical plant in Gorlovka, is pointing to. This is the scar left by a Pion 210 shell fired three months ago by the Ukrainian army from the village of Opytne, 12 miles to the north. “We barely escaped a catastrophe,” the sentinel at this veritable factory-cum-city, which is criss-crossed by a company-owned rail network and by gigantic pipes and reservoirs, says worriedly. “On the other side of the gate, over there, just fifty yards away, there’s a former TNT factory. It shut down twenty-three years ago, but hundreds of tons of explosives are still stocked there. And then, over on this side, in the reservoirs, there are still a few liters of ammonia,” György goes on, pointing to the enormous tanks.

The Stirol Concern factory, a veritable time bomb.

The Stirol Concern factory, which also turns out sulfuric acid and nitric acid, has been a veritable time bomb since the beginning of the Donbas conflict. Today, only about a hundred of the 4,000 workers who usually are on the site come regularly to do the necessary maintenance work at this impressive industrial palimpsest whose construction dates back to the Soviet era. “The first shops were put up in 1929,” says Igor, one of the factory engineers, with whom I spoke over the phone. “And in 1933, the first liters of ammonia in the USSR ware produced there. Since then, the factory has been repaired and renovated several times. In the 1980s and 1990s, the most modern buildings were even constructed by French engineers.” It was this modernization which, up until a few months ago, made it possible for the Stirol plant, purchased in 2010 by the Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, to produce 1% of the world’s ammonia output.

“Today, there’re still enough products in the tanks,” Igor warns. “Imagine the consequences if a shell accidentally fell on the wrong spot! It could be a catastrophe as bad as Chernobyl!” the technician warns. “The fact is that, if the old TNT plant blew up, it would trigger a chain reaction in the ammonia silos, which would irreversibly seep into the subsoil.”

This scenario is practically guaranteed due to the porosity of the underground cavities in the region, notably since the shelled mines have been flooded. “If the ammonia and other products flowed through the mine tunnels, they would reach the rivers and streams and could poison the whole hydraulic system in the Donbas.”

Three branches of the Don provide water to the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and to six major cities. Farther north towards Artemovsk, the Bakhmutka river, which flows through agricultural areas, could also be affected by the branches of the Don.

“And then there isn’t just the water problem, the emission of ultra-toxic gases into the air is a no less serious danger,” the engineer concludes. At the Stirol plant on August 6, 2013, an industrial accident killed five people and intoxicated a further 22. Following a process of depressurization in one of the reservoirs, a crack appeared in a pipe, allowing a deadly cloud of white vapor to escape. At the time, it took twenty minutes for the security services to intervene. How long would it take if the plant were hit much more seriously?

The enormous shell-hole of the Pion 210 shell fired by the Ukrainian forces is there to prove it: Nothing shows that the Kiev authorities are conscious of the danger. Will the owner of the factory, the oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who was arrested in Vienna last year for paying bribes to politicians in an affair involving the construction of a titanium factory in India, be able to bring his friend who is in power today, the other oligarch, President Piotr Poroshenko, to his senses? Nothing is less certain. In an interview with the Inter TV Channel network in May, 2014, Firtash announced that he was ready to do anything to make the Ukraine stronger. Ready to do anything, including providing arms to the Ukrainian army.

[1Names have been changed to protect individuals.

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