From Kalush to collapse: one Ukrainian city’s life on a lethal chemical stew

kalush 5 Collapsing structures in Kalush due to myriad abandoned mining tunnels filled with chemical waste. (Photo: Marcel Pazman )

KALUSH, Ukraine – Welcome to the city of Kalush, a former mining town at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, located in the Western part of Ukraine – and tormented by severe chemical pollution, houses that sink into the underground, massive unemployment and sickness among its 65,000 inhabitants.

Welcome to one of the most polluted areas in Europe.

An area no one seems to care about.

As far back as the 1400s – when Kalush was part of Poland – it hosted mining beginning in mid 1500 it began the first ever chemical production of Nitrate.

The area is generally rich in various subsoil salts and numerous factory plants specializing in agricultural fertilizer using Potassium and Magnesium were established over the years. Up to 15,000 people used to work here.

kalush 4 A topple-down building in Kalush with the words 'Dangerous Zone' written in Ukrainian. (Photo: Marcel Pazman)

An undermined city

The enormous mine dug its way under the city. Today it’s 7.5 kilometers long with more than 1,000 chambers. Each chamber is between 2 to 7 meters high and 20 to 200 meters long.

With time, some of the chambers have been filled with waste, both domestic and from the extensive chemical production in the city.

“No one knows what is hidden in the mines, nor how much. When they stopped using the underground mine, it was flooded. They pumped water into the many tunnels and chambers in order to stabilize the fragile underground”, explains Yuri Sadoviy, head of the Kalush Gallurgy Institute.

Mykhailo Dovbenchuk, former chemist at one of the chemical plants who today heads the local NGO Green Movement Karparty, and  Sadoviy estimate there are more than 1,000 tons of mixed chemical waste in the many chambers beneath Kalush.

The excavations undermined the town’s foundations, and part of the waste that that has been dumped in the mine began to give off condensation, eroding the mine’s stability.

In 1987 a disaster took place: In just one night some 40 houses sunk into the ground. Several of the houses simply disappeared into the earth while other collapsed.

The result is that the mines are now flooded and filled with mixed chemical waste. A combination designed to bring more catastrophes:

“We fear both more collapses and the chemicals spreading to groundwater,” said  Sadoviy. “There is no monitoring of the groundwater, so nobody knows if the chemical waste spreads to the drinking water.”

This article is the first in a series that will explore chemical waste in Ukraine. The original version appeared on contaminatedfuture.org, an endeavor by two independent Danish journalists, Tom Heinemann and Morten Hansen, to illuminate the ongoing crisis of obsolete pesticides and other industrial chemicals buried in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

Tom Heinemann and Morten Hansen

contaminatedfuture@gmail.com