Ukraine takes on toxic dumps

As Olena Cholovska approaches the crumbling brick warehouse, she sighs. The cold wind whipping her scarf around her head blows toxic greenish powder into the nearby cabbage fields.

"A year ago we were here and all the doors were still here," says Ms. Cholovska, the director of the Lviv Plant Inspection Station in Lviv Oblast, an administrative region in western Ukraine that borders Poland.

The villagers who made off with the derelict warehouse's metal and wooden doors – most likely to burn them or sell them for scrap – may have had no idea that they were intended to protect locals from a stockpile of pesticides that date back to Soviet times.

The abundance of toxic pesticides is not unique to this rural, northwestern region of Ukraine, an hour south of the city of Lviv. In a country about the size of Texas, the United Nations estimates that about 4,000 dumps house nearly 20,000 tons of obsolete pesticides. The potentially lethal waste hurts Ukraine's agricultural potential, especially when it comes to exporting produce to the expanding European Union (EU).

A few years ago, Cholovska says there were about 200 pesticide dumps in Lviv Oblast. Now, thanks to the efforts of about 25 Ukrainians working on behalf of universities, institutes, and local agencies, the number of dumps has been reduced to only 169.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is spearheading a project to help clean up the country, but officials on the ground face numerous challenges from locals' lack of awareness and cooperation.

"Some people have tried to put fences around the sites and they just take the fences," says Margaret Jones, an EPA pesticides scientist from Chicago who has visited some of the sites. "They saw one local guy running through the woods with literally the last brick from one of the sites. That brick is going to build something else and you hope it's not in someone's home."

The EPA, working with the State Department and the US Agency for International Development, is sponsoring demonstration projects to educate Ukrainians about the dangers of harmful pesticides. Over the past three years, some of the US government's $300,000 in aid has also gone toward computers and Internet access for Ukrainian government offices, some of which lack heat and electricity.

The bulk of Ukraine's left-over pesticides are classified by the EPA as persistent organic pesticides (POPs). These chemicals, like the famous insecticide DDT, which was banned in the US in 1972, take a long time to break down and are particularly harmful to animals and people. Animals at the top of the food chain tend to accumulate POPs in their systems over time. which is why the insecticide DDT was so harmful to bald eagles and was eventually banned.

The vast pesticide waste is the vestige of a planned economy gone wrong. Before Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow regularly sent pesticides to the countryside – regardless of local demand.

"Now, you get pesticides by buying them," says Cholovska, whose husband sells pesticides and farm equipment in Lviv. "But back then, we got pesticides if we wanted them or not."

The Soviet Union's central economic planners often doled out more pesticides than were needed for rural areas. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the management of pesticide dumps, leaving an excess of toxic materials without supervision.

According to the United Nations, it costs about $3,500 to clean up one ton of old pesticides. The reticence on the part of the government in Kiev to clean up the sites, says Cholovska, is frustrating.

Last year, the local Oblast administration gave her agency 450,000 hryvna, or about $90,000, to manage the pesticides. Along with money from other sources, Cholovska's agency was able to dispose of about 40 tons of pesticides. Government inventory figures show about 1,000 tons in the Lviv Oblast alone.

Cleaning the sites requires placing all the chemicals into thick plastic barrels that are then shipped to incineration sites.

But simply removing the pesticides doesn't solve the problem. Cholovska and her colleagues plant mint and watermelons in the soil surrounding cleaned areas in the hopes that the plants will soak up toxic residues before villagers bring their cows into the area to graze.

Convincing locals of the danger, says Cholovska, is a major headache in the cleanup effort.

Some locals have been known to steal the pesticides, pack them into cheap plastic bags, and sell them at outdoor markets, Jones says. The informal packaging can result in fungicides sold as herbicides and herbicides labeled as pesticides.

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